We’re excited to share the cover for Charles Stross’ Dark State, a sleek and provocative techno-thriller set in The Merchant Princes multi-verse. Dark State ups the ante on the already volatile situations laid out in Empire Games, as Stross dives deep into the underbelly of paratime espionage, nuclear warfare, and state surveillance.
Check out the full cover and read an excerpt from the novel below!
In the near-future, the collision of two nuclear superpowers across timelines, one in the midst of a technological revolution and the other a hyper-police state, is imminent. In Commissioner Miriam Burgeson’s timeline, her top level agents run a high risk extraction of a major political player. Meanwhile, a sleeper cell activated in Rita’s, the Commissioner’s adopted daughter and newly-minted spy, timeline threatens to unravel everything.
With a penchant for intricate world-building and an uncanny ability to realize alternate history and technological speculation, Stross’ writing will captivate any reader who’s a fan hi-tech thrillers, inter-dimensional political intrigue, and espionage.
New London, time line three, August 2020
Rita Douglas’s head was spinning.
It had been scarcely twenty-eight hours since her reconnaissance mission to the time line codenamed BLACK RAIN had gone spectacularly bad, culminating in her capture and interrogation by the National Transport Police in the city of Irongate, near Philadelphia in time line two. The detention of a world-walker from the United States had ignited a firestorm of political maneuvering in the Commonwealth, as different agencies vied to capture her. Then the enigmatic Miss Thorold of the DPR had shown up in Irongate with a warrant and a helicopter to spirit her away to a secret meeting in the capital with a very senior politician—a woman who claimed to be her birth mother—which ended badly.
But now they were letting her go. It seemed almost too good to be true.
In the outer office they gave Rita a leather shoulder bag to hold the diplomatic letters and a DNA sample to prove the identity of her high-ranking contact. Then Inspector Morgan and Miss Thorold—her wheelchair pushed by her bodyguard—escorted Rita back out to the helicopter-like aircraft waiting on the pad behind the ministerial palace. There were no handcuffs or blindfolds this time. None were needed, for she was going home. She ought to have been happy, or at least relieved. Instead of facing further interrogation, she was going home to report to Colonel Smith. Instead of being buried in a prison cell she’d be able to sleep in her own bed, or her girlfriend Angie’s. She should have been happy, but instead her stomach was a pit of curdled despair. I fucked that up brilliantly, didn’t I? The look on the evil queen’s face when she said I was younger than you are now was going to haunt her dreams.
The guard helped Miss Thorold into the seat beside Rita. Rita accepted a headset as the aircraft screamed into mechanical life, small jets howling at the tips of each rotor blade. As they lurched into the air, she felt so mortified she half-wished the gyrodyne would crash. The moment passed. Then, a minute later, Miss Thorold poked her sharply in the fleshy part of her upper arm and spoke through her earphones. “Well done, kid. Very well done. I hope you’re proud of yourself.”
“Proud of what?” Rita said defensively. She wrapped her arms around the shoulder bag. “You set me up! You set us both up. And it’s true. She put me up for adoption. She abandoned me.”
“I see we have some issues to work through here.” Olga gave her a critical look. “She was twenty-three. Had it occurred to you that it might not have been a decision she made on her own? I’d tell you to ask her mother, but Iris died fourteen years ago.”
“My grand—” Rita made a fist of her left hand and jammed it against her lips to hold back the scream of frustrated anger she could feel building inside her.
“Iris was always good at manipulating Miriam,” Olga added after a while. “Miriam only really thrived once her mother was gone. This is a horrible thing to say, but Iris was a tyrant. Quite, quite ruthless, although she had her reasons—mainly her own mother. But as I understand things, Iris simply didn’t want to have a baby around in those days. Especially—in her eyes—a half-caste bastard whelped by a non-world-walker. Iris grew up in the Gruinmarkt before she ran away. It’s where I grew up, too. It leaves its mark on you: that’s how people there thought. Totally medieval. They were still having honor killings and multi-generational blood feuds when the USAF closed the book on them.”
“You’re telling me I, I—” Rita choked to a halt.
“Do your job and fuck off back to the United States,” Olga said tiredly. “They’ll debrief you, yell at you for getting yourself caught, then send you back here eventually. Because that’s easier than expanding their threat perimeter to marshal more world-walking assets. Which is all you are to them, frankly. Meanwhile, my advice to you, which you will probably ignore, is to think before you open your mouth again. I know Miriam. If you really don’t want to talk to her she’ll respect that, but if you want to hit the reset button and start over, I’m pretty sure she’ll listen. She likes to think the best of people. Just… try to get your facts straight before the next time you gut someone.”
Rita nodded, not trusting herself to reply. Then she reached up to the overhead console and unplugged her headphones. She brooded for the remainder of the hour-long flight, her emotional isolation enforced by the muffled thunder of the rotors. I already have a mother, she thought confusedly, thinking of her adoptive parents, Emily and Franz: what does Mrs. Burgeson even mean to me? But that led to other questions, starting with what do I mean to her?—questions that she had no answers for, which left her feeling increasingly queasy.
Boston, time line two, August 2020
Kurt Douglas paid no heed to the early morning rain shower as he shuffled slowly along a tree-lined path, searching for his wife’s headstone in the graveyard.
Greta had died more than twelve years earlier, of emphysema brought on by her lifelong cigarette habit. The echoes of her choking laughter haunted the empty corners of Kurt’s life as he rattled around like a dry pea in the clean-as-a-whistle house his son Franz had bought him, next door to Franz’s own home in Phoenix. Greta would have helped him fill it—assuming that she hadn’t hated it so much she insisted they live elsewhere. Soulless, he could hear her ghost tutting in the recesses of his skull.
Kurt shook his head. Droplets of water hazed the surface of the glasses he wore, misting the world around him with damp uncertainty. A normal man might have moved on by now. But Kurt couldn’t leave Greta’s memory behind as easily as he’d left her body in this Boston graveyard when he followed his son and daughter-in-law to Phoenix. The events of November 1989 had seen to that, shattering their shared life’s purpose. Everything since then had seemed like a bitter joke, until now.
Greta was not only his wife but his life-long co-conspirator. They’d come to the United States to perform a mission of vital importance, only for it to be deprived of all meaning by the collapse of East Germany. Now she was here, sleeping beneath the damp green sward of an alien nation she had never really approved of. And he was here too, brokenly ticking along like a clockwork man held upright by the rusting armature of a promise he’d made forty years ago. A Lutheran pastor he’d known in his youth had a way with words: You might not believe in God, the man had told him waspishly, but that does not mean God does not believe in you. Kurt no longer believed in the great work that had brought him to this shore, but it was the cracked and time-worn faith on which he’d built his life. Renunciation would be the final straw: an admission in his twilight years that his entire life had been meaningless.
Greta’s resting place resembled an arboretum rather than a cemetery. Tranquil and wooded, the discreet headstones and memorials of those buried here were set back from footpaths, beneath the shade of neatly manicured trees. It could almost pass for a public park, but for the scarcity of surveillance cameras. The dead were no longer under suspicion, sleeping beyond the reach of politics and intrigue. All but one…
He found her grave eventually. Greta’s remains lay beneath a simple stone, with no religious motif—she had detested all such, denouncing them irritably as superstition—but with a marble flower pot for decoration. Someone had recently mowed the grass around it, and a handful of lilies, only just beginning to wilt, suggested that the grave had been visited recently.
Kurt lowered himself to his aching knees, leaning one hand on the headstone. It seemed to him sometimes that the better half of his life lay buried here. After so many years his grief was worn as smooth as a pebble on a rocky lee shore. Without her acerbic humor at his side, he felt like a pallid ghost fluttering through a future he was neither trained nor briefed for. A future which had no need for his kind.
He paused for long enough to compose himself, then carefully unwrapped the bouquet of red roses he had brought. Fumbling with the flower pot, he removed the lilies and set them to one side. They lay like the dead, a limp bundle gathered together by a rubber band. He arranged the roses at the foot of the stone, one by one. Then he carefully rolled up the wilted lilies in the sheet of paper he’d carried the roses in. Finally he heaved himself upright and went in search of a trash can.
The finger-sized aluminum cigar tube he’d found among the lilies felt like a lead brick in his pocket, full of dangerous secrets. Greta would have appreciated the irony. But then, she always had been a truer believer and a more dedicated player of the Great Game than he. She’d urged him to maintain the old disciplines, to keep the members of the spy ring they jointly controlled aware that they served a great purpose and had not been forgotten. To maintain the Wolf Orchestra against a time of need.
She would have wheezed herself sick with laughter at the sight of him using her grave as a dead letter drop. And he was certain she would have approved of the use to which he was about to put the Orchestra—even though it was purely by accident that they’d finally penetrated a first-rank target organization, a third of a century after the state they had served was absorbed by its enemies.
His granddaughter Rita was in trouble and he intended to defend her. And when Kurt rose and walked away from his wife’s grave, he bore in his pocket a shield and sword: the last legacy of a nation that no longer existed.
Cambridge, time line two, August 2020
Kurt’s first port of call after the grave of his wife was a car pound in the suburbs of Cambridge, to see a woman about a car. Buses and subway trains and trams were all surveilled these days, so out of a general state of cussedness he walked nearly four miles through the light autumnal rain to get there. The cigar tube rode in his jacket pocket, unseen but always felt, a focus for heightened awareness and curiosity. It was a familiar irritant of a kind he understood well, and he would resist the temptation to examine its contents until he could guarantee total privacy.
He was more curious about the woman he was on his way to meet. He was already aware of her as the granddaughter of an old comrade who had died some years ago, one of the tribe of true believers the Orchestra had been tasked with raising on this foreign shore. His adoptive granddaughter held the woman in some esteem, and Rita’s judgment in friendship had never given him cause for concern yet. That Rita was now holding him at arm’s reach was worrying, even in light of the identity of her employers. And that her (he hesitated to make assumptions, but the label appeared to fit) girlfriend was reaching out to him for help on her behalf, using the old contact protocols, was even more worrying: so Kurt answered the call promptly.
The mission planners of the Hauptverwaltung Aufklärung had carefully studied the followers of secret faiths in order to replicate the feat among the offspring of their agents on foreign soil. Marranos in Spain, vodoun in Haiti, thuggee in India: all groups who lived among their enemies while remaining loyal to a forbidden doctrine, passing their faith down the generations in secret. The HVA’s objective had been to raise a crop of East Germans in exile in America, able to pass the most stringent background checks with flying colors while remaining loyal to the cause. The mission had been rendered pointless by the end of the cold war and the absorption of the GDR by West Germany, but the training and the tribal loyalties had lingered. Kurt had taught Franz, and then Rita. His colleague Willy had passed on the hidden knowledge to his granddaughter Angela by way of his son, her father. There were other children and grandchildren. Their parents took care to arrange introductions and many of them became more than friends, marrying within the group: for this was how a persecuted religion persisted in the face of adversity. And so the last true believers of the Socialist Unity Party of Germany practiced their faith behind closed doors, a secret religious cult embedded within the United States of America.
There was a diner on a street corner in Belmont, sharing the block with a burger joint and an office sandwich carry-out. Kurt arrived around two thirty in the afternoon, during the slack hours between the end of the lunchtime rush and the first trickle of commuters grabbing a bag for the drive or train ride home. He ordered a coffee and a chicken sub, then slid into a booth with a view of the window and pulled out the burner phone he’d bought that morning in a CVS. Making a note of its number, he turned it on, placed a call to a voicemail address, listened briefly, then turned it off again. Content with what he had heard, he slid it back into his pocket and turned his attention to his lunch.
As he was approaching satiety (half the sub remained uneaten: age was slowly killing his appetite) a young woman with green-streaked blue hair opened the door and glanced around. He waved: she came over. “Are you Kurt?” she demanded.
He put the sub down and carefully wiped his fingers. “You must be Angela,” he said, standing and offering a hand. She shook, grip firm and emphatic.
“Angie,” she corrected, defusing it with a smile.
Kurt couldn’t help noticing there was meat on her bones. Black leather jacket, jeans, chunky emerald sweater and chunky silver jewelry: short hair, squared-off unvarnished fingernails, a half-healed scratch on one knuckle. “Angie, then. You are an electrician, I understand?”
“Yeah.” She sat down, unslinging a bulging messenger bag. He followed suit. “Rita asked me to get her car out of the pound, and I kind of hoped you might be up to ferry-driving it down to Philly with me tomorrow.”
“I can do that,” Kurt said. “It’s the Acura, yes? Franz’s old car?”
“Her dad’s? Yep. I’ve got the paperwork to spring it from the pound where it’s been parked up for six months, but I thought I should get it checked over before we bring it to her, and I need someone to drive in convoy with me in case it breaks down. I’ve got a hitch on the truck but I don’t want to tow it three hundred miles if I can avoid it.”
“Well”—Kurt gestured at his unfinished meal—“perhaps we can do that after lunch? I have a room in a motel, I’m sure we can park it nearby, and then we can start off early tomorrow.” He paused. “I will need to catch a train back to Boston.”
“I can give you a ride afterwards,” Angie offered. “My truck’s got an autopilot mode so I can sleep on the return leg. It’ll give us a chance to catch up.”
She had a smile like an arc-welder. Yes, I think I know what she sees in you, Kurt decided. He was too old and too honest with himself to run after pretty women, but it warmed his heart to see Rita doing well for herself. “I would like that,” he said gravely. “You and Rita met in the Girl Scouts, yes?”
“Yeah. Long story. Guess I should save it for the drive back, huh?” She gestured at his meal: “I need to get some food. Be right back.”
Kurt worked on his chicken sub while she ordered, silently contemplating her proposed course of action. Yes, it was plausible from an outsider’s perspective: a solid cover story. Grandfather helps girlfriend drive granddaughter’s car home for her, girlfriend gives Gramps a ride back to his hotel afterward and deadheads home. If anyone asked, of course Angie would want to get to know her partner’s favorite relative. And with gas under a dollar a gallon, it made sense to drive. A security officer paying attention to Rita’s social graph wouldn’t even blink. If Kurt wanted to visit Rita and sniff around her contacts, it was a perfect pretext: your parents asked me to check out your new friend…
He glanced at Angie as she paid for her food. The wolf cub had grown up into a fine specimen. I wonder how much operational doctrine your parents passed on to you? If she was a full initiate of the Wolf Orchestra, rescuing Rita would be much easier.
Philadelphia, time line two, August 2020
The mission to spring Rita’s wheels from automobile jail went smoothly enough. The guard at the pound was expecting Angie, the storage fees were all billed to Rita’s employers, and the Acura had been stored under a tarp. When Angie checked it over, the tires were low, but the self-inflation system worked, and after running the engine for five minutes they were all showing the correct pressure. “It’s probably going to fail its next emissions test,” Angie said, listening to the engine, “but I know a shop that’ll fix it cheap. Are you up to driving three hundred miles tomorrow, Mr. Douglas?”
“Of course. I need more rest stops than you youngsters, so you should allow five hours for driving and two more on top, but I can do that.”
“Great! Well, how about you take her car to your hotel overnight, then phone me when you’re ready to set off tomorrow morning?”
They parted company outside the pound. Kurt braved the Boston afternoon traffic with quiet stoicism. When he pulled up behind the hotel he was staying in, he rested his head on the steering wheel for a couple of minutes. Then, as calm returned, he climbed wearily out and went to his room.
Before he showered, Kurt closed the curtains then retrieved the cigar tube from his jacket pocket. Unscrewing it, he looked inside. A tightly-curled sheet of paper met his gaze. It was covered in a grid of hand-written letters, seemingly random. Attached to the bottom with Scotch tape was a neat row of chips: a tiny memory card, and no less than five phone SIMs. Kurt whistled quietly through his teeth, impressed despite himself. The FLASH request he’d sent out, asking the Boston Resident to conduct a roll call, had delivered far more than he’d expected. Neglected sleeper rings tended to decay over the years as agents became ill or infirm, died, or went feral. But of the eight families in this part of the United States, five had answered the call. Most of them were undoubtedly second or third generation descendants: it was possible some of them didn’t even know what the Orchestra was, or the purpose it served. But they’d each sent the number of a burner phone and a code word, and the Resident had set up a SIM for each of them. They’d only answer a call from a phone using the correct SIM, and would only respond to the correct code word, but Kurt now held in his hands the key to a ring of sleeper agents, all unknown to one another and (hopefully) the authorities.
Deciding what to do with it—or whether to use it at all—would have to wait until he’d spoken to Angie in private.
Kurt folded the paper and its precious cargo and inserted them in the middle of a paperback he was slowly reading and annotating—Judt on the history of Europe since 1945—then stashed his toothbrush in the cigar tube, placing it in turn in his toilet bag, where it would be just another old man’s foible if anyone searched for it. (Decrypting the message was best left until after his return to Philadelphia, indeed for as long as possible. The last thing he needed to be in possession of at an airport checkpoint was an incriminating plaintext message.) Then, for want of anything better to do with his evening, he watched a comedy movie, ordered in a pizza, and went to bed early.
The drive down to Angie’s apartment in the suburbs near Philadelphia went smoothly but boringly. Nevertheless, Kurt was light-headed and slightly shaky by the time he pulled into the lot and parked up beside Angie’s crimson pickup. He was old and no longer accustomed to driving such distances in a day, and although Rita’s Acura had once been comfortable it was now entering its twilight years, with well-pummeled seats, poor shock absorbers, and a collection of arthritic squeaks and rattles to rival his own. Angie materialized from the apartment doorway as he eased himself out of the driver’s seat. She looked concerned. “Are you okay?”
“I will be once I stretch these bones.” Kurt waved her away tiredly. “And then I must sit down for a few minutes.”
“We should go get some dinner. Then I can run you back up to Boston?”
Six hundred and fifty miles in a day. Kurt gritted his teeth: Don’t say you didn’t know what you were doing. “Dinner would be good,” he admitted. “Then we can talk.”
“I checked my truck when I stopped for gas. Didn’t find any new trackers.”
“They don’t need trackers to follow you unless you go off-grid. The truck itself reports—”
“I know. But mine only tells them what I want it to: I was looking for new passengers.”
Kurt sighed. “You won’t find them. They are subtle. The hands-free kit and in-cab entertainment system, they are all rooted these days. I could show you pictures from the old days, what passed for bugs in the GDR—they’re on the web—it is to weep! I knew technical guys, nerds you would call them, who must be rolling in their graves, green with envy for the shinies of the NSA. But all this is nonsense. We should check Rita’s car before we go—that is where you will find the extra bugs. There is a reason I had my son give her an old sedan, its systems lack the native intelligence to make a good informer.”
Angie frowned. “You really think they’ll be monitoring me proactively?”
“Yes, because you’re a known associate of one of their agents, and servers that can process speech to text are cheap. But you are probably safe, unless they know of the Orchestra, in which case we are both in hot water already.” He laid a finger on the truck’s passenger door handle. “Shall we eat?”
New London, time line three, August 2020
The Party headquarters within the walled royal capital of New London occupied the former Crown Prince’s palace on Central Avenue, which bisected the lower quarter of Manhattan Island. The chaotic maze of offices and departments (many of them organized after the new open plan mode, with fabric-covered partitions dividing up the floors of former ballrooms and state receiving suites like cells in a very busy beehive) provided accommodation to the heads of the apparatus of the Deep State. These were the bureaucratic structures created by the Radical Party during the revolution, to provide a supportive framework within which democracy was to take root and thrive. Naturally there were times when it seemed anything but democratic. And that afternoon, Erasmus Burgeson, the Minister of Propaganda and Communications, was running up against it in the person of some of his more obstructive colleagues.
“We have to face facts,” Commissioner Jarvis said mildly as he polished his spectacles on one end of his neck-cloth. “Adam is terminally ill, and when he dies the enemy—both without and within—will push as hard as they can to overturn the Party.” He referred to Adam Burroughs, the First Man and leader of the revolution seventeen years before that had toppled the monarchy and installed this time line’s first democracy, in the former New British Empire.
“Of course the reactionaries will come out of the woodwork!” Erasmus agreed vehemently. “Which is why, from a propaganda viewpoint, the course of action you’re proposing is a bad idea: it will play right into their hands. Everyone will expect a, a ham-fisted crackdown on dissent. It won’t win friends. In fact, purges are often interpreted as a sign of weakness. Consider the outcome of John Frederick’s disastrous crackdown in ’86 after his father’s assassination… All the polling my research department has done points to the inexorable conclusion that one conveys the appearance of strength best by acting as if one is already secure, rather than by issuing threats that invite defiance. The First Citizen secured the revolution when he allowed the Emperor to leave peacefully. Doing so was an assertion of power, not an admission of weakness. Similarly, so was his delegation of most of the powers formerly wielded by the Crown to the apparatus of the Party. If we clamp down in the wake of his death, we run the risk of making the Party look as if it has something to fear once the First Man is gone—”
“You are talking about appearances.” Commissioner Buccleugh’s diction was as sharp as ever, even though Erasmus harbored doubts about his mind—now more than ever, for the man was in his dotage. “But as Albert says we must face facts. Have you seen the foreign intelligence briefings? The Young Pretender is clearly cozying up to the Dauphin, and there has been an upswing in activity at home by the Patriot Societies, the so-called Royalist Party loons who would welcome the return of the jackboot and fetters in an instant—”
An extremely modern woman, one of the new generation of Party bureaucrats, approached their little circle of armchairs. They were off to one side of the cold fireplace in the Commissioners’ Dining Room, and so Erasmus was the first to see her approach. “Gentlemen, please?”
“Ah, a message for Commissioner Burgeson?” The staffer extended one gloved hand, bearing a sealed envelope. “Sir, if you need to reply—”
“A moment.” Erasmus slit the envelope open with the edge of one fingernail. He scanned quickly, then folded the letter away. “Gentlemen, I’m being called away. Fascinating as this discussion has been, I think we are going to have to agree to disagree—at least until we can put our heads together again for long enough to reach a consensus.” He eased himself out of the chair with a moue of pain. “After you, my dear,” he told the staffer.
She beat a hasty retreat from the dining room, with its forbidding ambiance of old man’s club: Erasmus followed her as fast as he could. His hips and knees weren’t particularly bad for his years, but he was of an age he had never consciously expected to reach, and was finding it full of unpleasant surprises. The constant low-level pain from aching joints and tendons were by no means the worst of it. As they passed through the doorway into the main corridor, he asked, quietly, “Where is she?”
“I left her in your office, sir. She appears to be distressed.”
The staffer looked at him with wide eyes. She can’t be more than twenty, Erasmus realized. Dark suit, blond hair with a permanent wave so tight it might have been lacquered into immobility. Divergent fashions aside, she was of a type he recognized instantly from the imported American political drama shows his wife watched at home when she needed to relax completely after work. (Which was all too seldom, these days.) “How distressed is she?” he asked gently.
“She borrowed my handkerchief, sir…”
Now worried, Erasmus sped up as best he could. Damn this warren, he thought: the marble floor took a toll on feet and knees. What can have happened? His wife was not, in general, given to melodramatic emotional meltdowns—especially not in public, wearing her Commissioner’s face. Hardheaded was an apt way of describing her. She hadn’t even cried at her mother’s funeral.
He found Miriam in her inner office, wearing a face more suited to news of a friend’s passing. “Leave us,” he said gently, and shut the door before the staffer could enter. He crossed the carpet to meet her. She leaned into his embrace hard, almost driving the breath from his ribs as she hugged him. She was shaking: “What is it?” he asked.
“The bastards. The bastards.”
“Hush.” Her shoulders were rigid with tension. They didn’t relax as he stroked her back. “Take your time. You’ve got time, I take it?”
“I’m due in front of the budget select committee in half an hour to discuss next year’s requirements, and then I’ve got a briefing on the teacher in-placement program—” She stopped. “I ought to cancel everything. I can’t focus.” She slowly relaxed her grip on Erasmus, but kept her chin on the crook of his neck and shoulder. She sniffed, betraying a passing congestion.
“What bastards? What did they do?”
“The US government. I’m convinced”—her bosom pushed against him as she inhaled deeply—“it’s deliberate. They knew, or guessed, that I’d survived. That’s why they sent her.”
“Her? This is the DHS illegal everyone was talking about yesterday?”
“Yes.” She let go of him, reluctantly. “Ras, if you learned that Annie—you said she died in childbed, in one of the camps—what if you learned that your child survived? And had been raised by Crown loyalists? What would you do?”
He felt sick to his stomach. “That can’t be…” He fell silent in the face of her expression.
“You know I had a daughter twenty-six years ago,” Miriam said quietly. “Not a world-walker. My mother pushed me into giving her up for adoption. Or maybe I half-wanted to do that anyway: or my first husband, back when we were dating… it’s hard to remember. My little accident. She was right here, where you’re standing now, just half an hour ago.”
“They—how did they find her?” Erasmus stared at her. His wife looked ashen.
“They’ve got the Clan breeding program records. Hell, we’ve got the records Iris copied from Dr. ven Hjalmar’s computer. My people had her on a hands-off watch list for years, keeping an eye on her via social media from a safe remove. A resident agent in Italy, something like that. Anyway, nobody really noticed until the day before yesterday—when the transit cops picked her up, and Olga scrambled to catch up—but her Facebook updates turned oddly anodyne nearly a year ago. It looked like she was posting entries but she wasn’t friending or unfriending anyone or joining new apps, there was just a thin layer of Astroturf covering multiple month-long gaps in her time line. She’s my girl, Ras, I’m sure of it. We don’t have a DNA match yet—the best our people can come up with will take another couple of days to come back from the lab—but she’s got her father’s looks and she was born on the right day in the right hospital. They made her into a world-walker, Erasmus, they worked out how to switch on the gene or whatever it is in carriers, and she, I think she hates me…”
She reached blindly behind herself until she found one of the visitor chairs and sat down heavily. Miriam did not weep easily: nor did she sob loudly. But the tear tracks on her cheeks told Erasmus everything.
“You think they knew you were here, and they deliberately sent her?” he asked, pulling up a chair and sitting next to her. He fumbled for his handkerchief and passed it to her; she took it gratefully and mopped at her face.
“Either that, or they guessed there was a high probability I’d be here. They knew about me back then, after all. They had a profile of the Clan leadership, of their presumed enemies. I can’t see what else it could be…”
“Miriam. How old are the other carriers your people were tracking? I thought you said they were all teenagers? Your daughter, how old is she, twenty-six? It might simply be that she was the oldest and best-trained.”
“Maybe.” She sniffed, and looked at him bleakly. “But there are other implications. She’s a world-walker. We have witness reports.”
“Could they have shrunk the gadget, whatever it is they use… ?”
She shook her head. “If they did, the arresting officers couldn’t find it on her person. Also, they applied the world-walker containment checklist and report that her reactions were exactly what you’d expect. Finally, she admitted it under questioning. The Department for Homeland Security absorbed the old Family Trade Organization, and that’s who she’s working for. They’re tasked with protecting the United States from threats from parallel universes—sound familiar? She even mentioned an old-timer who sounds like that Air Force colonel Mike Fleming worked for. It’s the same people, love, playing the same fucking head games with us. Only this time it’s personal.”
Philadelphia, time line two, August 2020
Less than an hour after her inconclusive conversation with Miss Thorold, Rita was in a secure office with Colonel Smith. Smith’s boss, Dr. Scranton, had been notified and was on her way. The rubberneckers from head office had been peeled away and sent to a waiting area to cool their heels. And the guards who had nearly machined-gunned her when she jaunted into the middle of the secured transit area had been dismissed. “They’re idiots,” Colonel Smith fumed. “‘Secure the area in case the opposition send us a whoopee cushion,’” he mimicked, fingers waggling in air quotes. “At least now I can tell them to get lost next time they try to stick their noses under the tent flap.” He looked as if he hadn’t slept for the entire duration of her trip. “How did it go wrong, Rita? Sitrep, please.”
“It was a mess,” she said faintly. “’Scuse me.” She sat down in the visitor chair. Smith looked more concerned than angry. He nodded silently as he waited for her to open up. “They caught me.” There, I said it. “There’s some sort of power struggle going on. The railroad police got me first, and asked lots of questions. They knew exactly what I was: they kept me in cuffs and blindfolded until they got me on the top floor of a high-rise.”
Smith swore quietly. “And?”
“They grabbed me almost as soon as I arrived and questioned me pretty much continuously until this morning. No sleep deprivation or violence,” she added hastily. “Also—they knew about world-walking, but they didn’t seem to know anything about the United States. I mean, at one point I got into this crazy loop trying to explain where Seattle is… Anyway, then a woman in a wheelchair turned up, acted like”—her eyes narrowed—“Dr. Scranton. Seriously, she had a bodyguard and issued orders and the police tripped over their own feet getting out of her way. She sprang me from police custody, said she was one jump ahead of a rival group from the secret political police. So then she hauled me off to New York in a helicopter—”
“That’s where their capital is. There’s, uh, there’s no D.C. in their time line. Anyway, she took me to see”—Rita swallowed—“my birth mother. Who is something—”
A snapping sound made her look up. The Colonel shook his head. “Continue,” he said, carefully placing the broken halves of his fountain pen beside the legal pad he’d been jotting notes on.
“—She’s something in their government, extremely high up. She, uh, she gave me a sealed letter for you—”
“Fuck.” Smith looked pained. “Excuse my French. Go on.”
“—Said she wants, her faction wants, to open diplomatic negotiations. To stop us nuking them, or them nuking us. Colonel, they’re in the middle of a cold war! She said, said they’ve got nine thousand H-bombs pointed at, at France? The French Empire? They want to talk. And she gave me a set of times and coordinates that are safe at their end—that is, her people will be waiting if I or, uh, some other world-walker, goes through to deliver a message.”
“I see.” Smith looked at her, frown lines forming a furrow across his forehead. “What else did you observe? Impressions? Technologies?”
Rita swallowed. The past day was all fading into a jumbled mass of impressions, swirling around the maelstrom of darkness that was her conversation—mere minutes—with the woman in the office. “They’ve got helicopters, sir. Big military-looking things, like a Black Hawk. Cars, trucks, buildings. They don’t go in for skyscrapers like we do, but there’s plenty of concrete and elevators and men in uniforms with machine guns. She said they’ve got nuclear power—”
“We already knew they’ve got nukes,” the Colonel said flatly. “Did the woman who said she was your birth mother have a job? Where was she?”
“They took me to see her in a big, uh, a big neoclassical building. Instead of downtown Manhattan they’ve got a bunch of palaces, former royal palaces. She was introduced as the, uh, Party Commissioner in charge of the Ministry of Intertime Technological Intelligence. Like it’s a big deal…”
Rita trailed off, dumbstruck. She’d never thought of the Colonel as a man prone to emotional outbursts or demonstrative behavior. To see him lower his head and rest his face in his hands was profoundly disorienting.
After a moment he looked up. The bruised skin under his eyes lent them the appearance of slowly rotting fruit. “This letter, Rita. Give it to me. And the other papers.”
“Uh, I can’t, the security detail took—”
“Jesus wept.” Smith picked up his desk handset and barked angrily: “Gomez, Colonel Smith here. Agent Douglas returned half an hour ago and there appears to have been a mix-up. You will personally locate all the clothing and items that were removed by the reception crew, I repeat all of them, everything, and bring them directly to my office. In particular, there’s a, a—”
“—A leather document case—”
“—You are looking for a leather document case. If anyone opened it, have them arrested and bring them here. If it’s open and the contents have been removed, find them and bring it. If it’s disappeared, notify me at once then put the site on lockdown and arrest everyone who might have handled it. If it’s still sealed, keep it that way when you bring it.”
He listened for a few seconds, then put the phone down and stared tiredly at Rita. “I’m going to start recording now, Rita. I want you to talk me through everything that happened, and then we’re going to go through it again when Dr. Scranton gets here. In minute detail. Take your time, but I want you to get everything out. Do you understand?”
“I—I understand. I fucked up,” she said hollowly.
“That remains to be seen. We generally apportion blame to the officer who issued the orders, not the hands that carried them out, and in this case Dr. Scranton’s orders came from the Oval Office by way of the National Security Council.” He picked up the wreckage of his pen, which appeared to be quite an expensive one, and rolled the broken barrel between his palms. “You seem to think we expect perfection. That’s not true. We just expect you to do the best you can. We’re not omniscient, we’re not super-intelligent. Everyone in this business is muddling along in the dark, concocting plans and executing them then revising when the outcomes don’t match what they expected.
“And in any case, there are very few rules for conducting the kind of mission we’ve been sending you on—very few indeed. Moscow Rules, maybe. So.” He put down the pen and moved his fatphone into the middle of the desk and tapped at its screen. “Testing… good. Colonel Smith, first debriefing of Rita Douglas after return from Phase Three. Rita, in your own words. What happened to you when you arrived in BLACK RAIN?”
Cambridge, time line two, August 2020
Boston, at four o’clock in the morning: a SWAT team was moving in on an enemy of the state.
They’d called in support from the Boston PD and the state troopers, cutting off access to the apartment building where the target lived on her own in a second-floor condo. Drivers trying to take that particular street would find their vehicles under police override, diverted into a nearby parking lot for inspection. Manual cars and trucks—not that there were many at this time of night—would be waved down by the state troopers. Papers would be demanded, DNA samples taken, trunks searched.
Overhead, a pair of silent drones kept infrared cameras trained on the block. Celldar—secondary radar that stitched together an image using the reflections of the pervasive cell phone and wi-fi carrier signals—filled in the blind spots. More recondite backup enforced the blockade. The neighborhood cell stations and wi-fi hot spots were all under government override, calls and Internet connections diverted, the locations of every phone and television and computer pinned down to within inches. Smart gas and electric meters monitored for signs of anomalous power spikes. Some of the more modern wireless routers, equipped with phased-array antennae capable of beam-shaping their wall-penetrating emissions, scanned buildings and mapped the location of human bodies. Webcams in tablets and laptops in every apartment came to life, activated without a betraying indicator LED: game consoles in dens and living rooms leapt to attention, repurposed as vigilant motion-sensing security guards. A translucent 3-D model of the building assembled itself in the team’s war room, every object accurately mapped to within millimeters, right down to the nails and wiring embedded in the walls.
The enemy of the state was asleep in her apartment bedroom. Spyware injected into her phone that night, masquerading as a software update, had boosted the sensitivity of the device’s twin mikes. The phone had heard the traitor awaken an hour earlier and shuffle to the toilet for a late night piss. It had listened as she returned to the bedroom, yawned, and burrowed back under her comforter. Breath came uneven at first, then slowed, falling into a tempo indicative of sleep. Analysis software now indicated that she was probably in stage II sleep, moving toward REM sleep within the next five minutes: dreaming deeply, her muscles paralyzed. In a control room on the far side of the city, the officers in the war room put their heads together and came to a consensus. It was time to move.
Five minutes to contact:
The front door to the apartment building obligingly unlocked itself for the SWAT team. Simultaneously, e-locks and fingerprint readers throughout the complex turned quisling. The front doors of all but one of the apartments in the complex sealed themselves shut, securing the residents inside, save only the targeted front door. That one silently unlocked.
Four minutes to contact:
The target’s phone, sitting in a cradle on the bedside table, had a front-facing camera. The target was lying on her side, facing the device. While the light level was sub-optimal, variations in specular reflection from her closed eyelids suggested rapid eye movements. Meanwhile, breath analysis confirmed ongoing deep sleep. The fire team now assembled on the second-floor landing outside the apartment. Their HUDs updated, showing them an exact map of the interior as they took up their positions.
One minute to contact:
The target was still asleep as a quadrotor drone spiraled down to hover in position thirty feet outside the bedroom window. Curtains hid the occupant from direct view, but the drone’s active teraherz radar could penetrate concrete and drywall and glass, confirming the accuracy of the map created by the rooted wi-fi routers. The UAV moved closer, motors whining as it lined its payload up on the window.
Fifteen seconds to contact:
Answering the press of a distant button the suppressed shotgun in the drone’s chin turret coughed, propelling a breaching round through the upper half of the window, shattering glass and ripping the curtain away from the opening. The target twitched, began to spasm: then the shotgun fired again, this time aiming at the sleeper. The slug it fired was a fearsomely complex machine, half air bag and half Taser. Exploding to boxing-glove dimensions just before impact, it punched the target down onto the mattress and drove wired barbs through her skin, then unloaded its capacitors through them.
The bedroom door burst open and the overhead lights came on. Armed men filled the room, guns pointing, shouting orders. The target moaned in pain, but lay supine as the DHS antiterrorist team zip-tied her wrists, ripped bedding aside to tie her at knees and ankles, then gagged and bagged her in a cocoon-like transporter threaded with biomonitors and a shock belt to enforce compliance. The rendition protocol was designed to minimize risk for the arresting officers, to take by surprise even a hardened assassin, lying sleepless with gun in hand. The target this time was a fifty-two-year-old single white female: unarmed, untrained, and unprepared.
Contact plus two minutes:
The SWAT team carried the pick-up downstairs and out to the waiting prisoner transport. Behind them, the apartment door locked itself, awaiting the arrival of the CSI team when regular office hours rolled around. As the arrest wagon rolled away behind its escort of cruisers with flashing lights, the security perimeter shut down. Cell and Internet services reverted to normal, traffic diversions cleared themselves, state troopers took calls and moved on to the next appointment of the night.
And by dawn, the only remaining sign that Paulette Milan had disappeared into night and mist would be the gaping hole in her bedroom window.
Philadelphia, time line two, August 2020
Dinner was Philly cheesesteak with fries for Kurt and a big crab salad bowl for Angie. Kurt allowed himself a large glass of wine with his food, and was in an expansive frame of mind when they left the restaurant and climbed back into Angie’s crew-cab.
Angie drove cautiously until they hit the interstate. Then she put the truck on autopilot and turned to face him across the center divider, which she had rigged as a mobile office. First she flipped a concealed switch under the dash. Then she opened one of the office cubbies and removed a padded chiller bag. She shook the bag out, then slid her phone inside and gestured for Kurt to follow suit. Once the phones were zipped away behind layers of muffling insulation, her shoulders slumped slightly. “The entertainment system’s powered down hard: I’m pretty sure we can’t be overheard. Rita hasn’t been back for two days,” Angie explained. Her voice quavered with worry. “I called her boss—she’d given me a number—but I got the brush-off. Kurt, what do you know about this thing she’s been dragged into?”
Kurt finger-flicked a brief acknowledgement. “Firstly, you must be clear on this: my son and daughter-in-law adopted Rita. We learned—much later—that her birth mother, and her mother (who arranged the fostering) were fugitives from the world-walkers. Did Rita tell you any of this?”
“That they tried to kidnap her? Or that the DHS said they did?” Angie’s scowl made her suspicions clear. “Yes, she told me about it. I know she’s not a, not one of the terrorists. But she didn’t tell me what they wanted her to do. Only that they’d worked out how to activate her ability to travel to other parallel Earths.”
Outside the windshield, in the darkness, the traffic flowed hypnotically. The truck indicated, then pulled out into the left lane to overtake a tanker.
“They want her for a spy,” Kurt said gently. “Quite ironic, is it not?”
Angie looked at him sharply. “Yes! Speaking of which… who set the Orchestra up, originally?”
“That’s ancient history.” Kurt stared at the lane dividers as they strobed past, gradually curving, the truck following the road by itself. “How much do you know about it?”
Angie hesitated. “My parents are part of it. So was Grandpa. I don’t remember when I first knew: I think after I came back from the second summer camp I guessed something, but there were games when I was a kid, stuff I barely remember. Papa teaching me a special kind of hide-and-seek in the mall when I was twelve. Socials with friends from the old country, and party games none of the other kids at school knew. A play-set polygraph when I was fifteen, and tricks to defeat it. The special Girl Scouts camps where everyone seemed to have parents who worked for the government and the merit badges were all about cryptography and tradecraft. I didn’t realize it was the real thing until I enlisted, during my clearance. They never told me explicitly. But I knew we were different and had to hide it.”
She kept using the correct personal pronoun, Kurt noted. He remembered a movie, decades ago: that word you keep using, it does not mean what you think it means. “There are two ways of looking at the Orchestra,” he said slowly. “Let me give you the children’s story first. Once upon a time there was a magic kingdom, which had been conquered by an ogre. And the ogre was unpleasant and bad-tempered and suspicious, and from time to time he ate people. The ogre thought people outside his kingdom were plotting against him, so he took some of his people and sent them abroad as spies. And, you know, there was a little truth in this: the ogre’s kingdom wasn’t popular, after all it was ruled by an ogre. But then a handsome prince—or maybe she was a princess—slew the ogre and freed the people. The spies were torn: if they went home, the new king, or queen, would not look on them favorably, for supporting the ogre’s regime. The people of the lands they now dwelt in would be angry if they admitted what they were! So there was nowhere for them to go but underground, hoping to live out their lives in anonymity.”
“Yeah, I got that early. Caused a few raised eyebrows when I came out with it in first grade, you know? But it sounded Grimm enough that the school counselor dropped it after a head-to-head with Mom.” Angie took a deep breath. “So I guess you’re not big on the workers’ paradise and the dictatorship of the proletariat?”
“I grew up there.” Kurt reached for his water bottle. “The ogre wasn’t all bad, but he was still an ogre: nobody sane would want to re-create his kingdom just for the healthcare coverage and the guaranteed employment.” A big road sign on a gantry hung overhead, closing fast. Kurt stared at it morosely. “On the other hand, there’s plenty wrong with this country, too. Sometimes it seems as if I haven’t moved very far at all.”
“But you said there’s another story—”
“Yes. The other way of looking at things—forget the allegory we teach our preschoolers, let me give you the grown-up version—is that Colonel-General Markus Wolf established the last great Communist Bloc spy ring on western soil during the sunset years of the GDR, in the 1970s through late 1980s. The Orchestra’s job wasn’t to spy, but to raise a generation of children in situ on American soil, natural-born Americans with perfect cover identities and enculturation, but loyal to the cause. The plan was that some of them would get jobs in government, as spies or agents of influence. But then the wall came down, and the controllers burned their files—starting with the most sensitive, those of the overseas illegals like your grandpa and me. We were cut loose, with nobody for aid but one another. We have no mission but survival, Angie. The nation we served is gone: it disintegrated nearly a third of a century ago. The irony is that my granddaughter, without even trying, has achieved an espionage coup—she has inadvertently penetrated a top-secret American HUMINT operation! The comrade general must be laughing in his grave. If the GDR was still around it would be the intelligence coup of the century.”
“But what does it mean?” Angie asked.
“What does what mean?” He raised an eyebrow: “It means fuck-all, unless you want to invent a meaning for it! It certainly means I am guilty of conspiracy to act as an agent of a foreign government without notifying the US Attorney General, contrary to the Foreign Agents Registration Act of 1938. The country for which I trained as a spy no longer exists, but that won’t help my defense. It means your grandfather and parents are guilty also. But the spying is not so serious: at worst a couple of years in federal prison. More serious is that to talk about helping Rita—you must be very clear on this—makes you a party to a conspiracy to interfere with a federal agent. These people do not mess around, Angie, and I fear that to them Rita is disposable. But I want you to think very hard before you commit to helping her. There could easily be terrorism charges. Everything is terrorism these days: downloading, uploading, jaywalking with intent to cause fear. Terrorism has become a meaningless word, our version of anti-Soviet hooliganism, but for all that, accusations of terrorism are not the worst risk we run. What they’re using her for, this game of empires… if we’re caught meddling they might even try and make a treason charge stick. We could be executed.”
Angie swallowed. “I got that,” she said, and took the water bottle from his fingers.
“It boils down to this: are you to your friends and family loyal first, or to your nation? Or are you loyal to the people who say they are the government of your nation—do this! do that!—are you loyal to those who claim to rule? Because you were born here, and even if you are the child of illegals, this is your nation, and in any case the ogre is dead.”
She looked at him sidelong. “You know she means the world to me?”
Kurt was silent for a while. “I’m not blind, or bigoted.”
“I’d marry her if I could. When they repeal the Defense of Marriage Act.”
“Well, good for you,” he said, so drily that she stared at him for a few seconds, unsure whether to parse his words as support. “I mean it: you made your choice. Did you know, you could marry her tomorrow if you were in Berlin? Your father can claim German citizenship by descent, and so can you. You were never in the HVA’s files: there’s no dirt to stick to you, or Rita. You and she could run away from the kingdom of the Ogre’s Son—this America—” He shrugged. “It’s up to you.”
“I’m certain they won’t let her go.” Her words were heavy with conviction. “I think they attach too much weight to her birth mother. She’s a world-walker to them, a tool not a citizen.”
“Do you know, back in the GDR ‘citizen’ was an insult? It meant something like ‘subject.’ Here, I think they’d say ‘civilian.’”
“Stop trying to distract me.” She crossed her arms. “What are we going to do?”
“A certain Herr Schurz, a Prussian politician, once said: ‘My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.’ Your choices—if Rita comes back, which I may remind you is not settled—are to look to your own well-being, or stay and fight to set things to rights here. Assuming you consider yourself to be a loyal American?” He saw the tension in her shoulders, the wrinkling of her brow: “But you won’t have to try and make that choice on your own. If you love her, talk to her. Then tell me what you want to do. Whether to fight or flee. And then I will see what the Orchestra can do to assist my granddaughter and the woman who wants to marry her.”
Excerpted from Dark State © Charles Stross, 2017.