The future of democracy must evolve or die.
The last time Information held an election, a global network outage, two counts of sabotage by major world governments, and a devastating earthquake almost shook micro-democracy apart. Five years later, it’s time to vote again, and the system that has ensured global peace for 25 years is more vulnerable than ever.
Unknown enemies are attacking Information’s network infrastructure. Spies, former superpowers, and revolutionaries sharpen their knives in the shadows. And Information’s best agents question whether the data monopoly they’ve served all their lives is worth saving, or whether it’s time to burn the world down and start anew.
Malka Older concludes her cyberpunk political thriller series The Centenal Cycle with State Tectonics—available September 11th from Tor.com Publishing.
The Dhaka street swarms with people, objects, and all of the existing data about all of these people and objects. Maryam, who of all people should be accustomed to words and numbers floating in front of her eyes, finds herself brushing at her face, as if to wipe away all that accumulated knowledge. It’s too much. She turns on first one filter, removing any data uploaded before the last global election, then another that she rigged especially for this trip, muting personal data that is not directly related to her mission. But Maryam is a believer in fate and coincidence and a childhood reader of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency, and she can’t escape the concern that her algorithm might exclude something vitally important. Miserably, she turns the second filter back off.
A few months ago, a ban on high-emissions vehicles, already the norm in most of the world, was finally enacted for all of micro-democracy. Dhaka included a concentration of particularly recalcitrant centenal governments, and the moment the law took force, the streets emptied out and transportation (particularly of goods) became scarce. The foule had responded immediately and took over the pavement with no regard for the likelihood that cleaner motor vehicles would pick up the slack. Sidewalks, suddenly unnecessary for pedestrians, became valuable real estate, and capsule apartments were built in front of existing buildings, barely leaving access to the entrances. Hovels sprang up in front of the capsule apartments, sometimes sloping off the ill-repaired sidewalks into the street proper. The garbage collection system had been largely diesel-based, and although a team of rickshaw collectors now supplements the ragpickers who never stopped searching for anything worth selling, they are making little headway against the mountains of garbage that lean against walls and spill into the street.
A massive vehicle, retrofitted to scrape past the new standards, is forcing its way through the human-clogged artery that remains between all these obstacles, and its slow progress is pushing Maryam and, it seems, the entire population of the flooded delta of Bangladesh into the walls and the garbage and the shacks and each other.
This is not a context in which Maryam feels particularly comfortable. She grew up in Beirut and Paris and pre-earthquake Lima, and in decidedly comfortable segments of each, and until recently lived in sparsely populated Doha. She itches to deploy her crowdcutter, a translucent shell shaped like a shark fin that would not only give her a literal edge in moving forward but also isolate her from the press of bodies. But she left herself plenty of time to get to the sanatorium, and she doesn’t want to attract any more attention than necessary. Anyone could be watching her, following her from feed to feed broadcast by microscopic cameras. But there are a lot of feeds in the world, a lot of people to watch. If no one is paying attention to Maryam, she doesn’t want to give them a reason to start. And maybe this crowd is thick enough to get lost in. Cheering somewhat at the thought, she pulls her scarf lower over her forehead and presses on.
Maryam locates the sanatorium a few streets over. The neighborhood has taken a disorientingly quick shift for the better. It isn’t one of the new wealth enclaves, with wide streets and gatehouses for armed guards, but the venerable residences are at least cared for enough to fend off the outgrowth of slums on the sidewalks. Maryam passes through a gate with the code she was given when she made her appointment, and then through a courtyard, hazy in the heat, to find the entrance proper. A plaque—an actual plaque, not projected or painted but engraved—explains the concept of time-capsule therapy and gives a brief history of its development, lists the names of major benefactors (including Information, Maryam notes with surprise; some of her bosses must be worried about aging too), and mentions the date of establishment: 2053. Maryam shivers at the thought of two decades crawling by while those within live frozen in the noughts. She pushes open the heavy door and walks in.
She finds herself in a large room with multiple closed doors leading off of it: a well-appointed reception center. Maryam had braced herself for the shock of stepping into a period drama, but everything seems normal: the receptionist is blinking through some data at eyeball level, an infotainment projection plays soundlessly in one corner, and the light fixtures in the ceiling are fluoron. Maryam gives her name to the receptionist, a skinny young man with luxuriant hair, and a few minutes later a small woman in her forties wearing a rose-and-green sari comes out to meet her.
“Welcome to the growling noughts,” she greets her. “Saleha Rashid. We just have a few procedures we need to go through before you can go on to your appointment.”
“Yes,” Maryam agrees. “I have some projections that I believe I need transferred?”
“To compatible technology. We can help you there,” Saleha says, leading her to a small office with an old-fashioned computer on a desk next to the workspace. “In fact, it was Taskeen who built the translation protocol, early in her stay here.”
Maryam smiles. That bodes well. “Intent on keeping up with events, was she?”
“We don’t forbid that, you know. Our clients are not institutionalized, and they are free to communicate with the outside world in any way they wish,” Saleha explains as she works with the projection files Maryam tossed her. “We maintain temporal continuity in all the public spaces of the premises, however, which is why we need to check all of your modern devices here.”
Maryam divests herself of her personal projector and handheld.
“You can keep your auto-interpreter, since it’s not visible, but Taskeen won’t be wearing one. Will you need an interpreter? We have several on staff.”
“We’ll be fine,” Maryam says, hoping that’s true. Her English is not great and she has no Bengali, but she can’t take the risk of an interpreter and prefers not to advertise that her discussion with Taskeen Khan, creator of the Information data pathways and a personal hero, is going to be highly classified.
Saleha hands Maryam a flat device about the size of her thumb with a metal connector at one end. “Your projections are on this, or an approximation of them. You can use it with Taskeen’s computer.” She studies Maryam. “But before we go I’m afraid you’ll have to do something about your clothes as well.”
Maryam looks down at herself. She is wearing much what she always wears: a black salwar kameez in pseudo-silk. The kameez is knee-length, with a simple micro-cutout pattern around the collar and cuffs, matching the dupatta she wears over her head.
“You can look like a foreigner, but you must be a foreigner from the turn of the century,” Saleha clucks. “The pseudo-silk, the heat reflectors, the micro-cutouts. It’s subtle, but believe me, someone from the past would notice. We have alternate clothing available.” She opens a large cabinet to display a rack of colors and fabrics. “I’ll be right outside. You can, of course, keep anything of your own that isn’t visible,” she adds as she closes the door behind her.
Maryam flips through the hangers, looking for something muted in the array of flowery fabrics and bright colors. Maybe this is an opportunity to cosplay a bit, even if it is a work meeting. She picks a style she recognizes from old movies, a full-skirted kameez and tight trousers in a bold geometric pattern. She looks around for a feed camera, remembers where she is, and grabs her handheld off Saleha’s desk to take a picture of herself and send it to Núria.
There’s a knock on the door. “All set?”
Maryam quickly puts her handheld back and opens the door to Saleha’s pleasant smile. “Shall we go meet her?”
Saleha leads her through the door behind the receptionist, which opens onto a city street. Maryam blinks in surprise, and then blinks again. Information’s detailed annotations and input don’t appear, and the world looks strange. The vehicles parked on the sides of the street are all from the turn of the century, resting on pitted asphalt. Thick bundles of black wires sway above her head, suspended on posts, with subsidiary lines branching off toward each of the buildings. Posters—two-dimensional and unmoving—for ancient movies and long-discontinued products—chewing gum, a disposable razor—are plastered to the walls.
“A bit disconcerting, isn’t it?” Saleha asks.
“You must be used to it,” Maryam says, not wanting to admit how strange it feels to walk into the past.
“Indeed. I’ve come to quite enjoy the shift.”
“Are all these houses . . . real?” Maryam asks, gesturing at the three and four-story buildings on each side of the road.
“Yes, we were able to purchase a block that hadn’t been substantially upgraded since the early part of the century, although we did have to retrofit some of the accoutrements, like the electricity lines.” Saleha nods at the sagging wires overhead. “And we made some alterations to close off our campus. There are no entrances other than our official ones, although it’s not something you’d notice. We have simulacra of televisions that show contemporary programming on a set annual schedule, and—oh, you’ll appreciate this,” she says with the confidence of someone who believes everyone who works in tech is interested in all aspects of technology. “We have a purpose-built model of the 2010 Internet, with custom blockers that can take it to any year until 2005, completely self-contained!”
Maryam does appreciate that. “Very impressive!”
“Yes. Of course, Taskeen helped us with that, too.”
It is strange to hear Dr. Khan, the visionary, academic, and technical genius, referred to so casually by her first name as someone who “helped” with a nursing home intranet. “And the shops?” Maryam asks. The building they are passing has a small grocery store on the ground floor, doors open for business, and in the one next to it she sees a jewelry shop. “Do you bring people in to staff them?”
“The businesses are all run by residents,” Saleha says, with a tilt of pride in her voice.
“They work?” It must cost a fortune to live in this facility, and the octo- and nonagenarians still have to hold down jobs?
“Only the ones who want to. And of course, they keep what they earn. We find that many of our residents crave occupation, and having a local economy is beneficial for the neighborhood. Of course, it’s a lot of work to manage it.”
“You mean subsidies?”
“There’s a great deal of arbitrage involved in getting the goods into this system and making them available for prices that make sense in the currency of the time. We offer some subsidies, especially for old products that we’ve had to commission, but there are also many administrative issues. But it’s certainly worth it. Those who want jobs can have them, and everyone can shop within our campus, rather than simply receiving goods from us.”
“You sound sold on this place,” Maryam says. “Does it really work?”
Saleha smiles. “I’ve already invested in my spot in the sliding forties. You’ll see,” she adds, as they turn into the entrance of a small building to the right. They climb three flights of stairs—seems like a lot for an elderly woman to have to do every day—and Saleha knocks on the door.
“Taskeen!” She calls. “I’ve brought you a visitor!”
The door opens wide. The woman standing inside is small but upright. Her hair is black, but she probably modifies it—or dyes it; that’s what people did at the turn of the century. She’s wearing thick glasses and a warm smile that could be described as grandmotherly. Her skin looks soft and is slathered with artificial coloring—blush, lipstick—but without knowing her age, Maryam probably would have guessed her to be in her fifties or even forties.
“Come in, come in,” Taskeen Khan says, stepping back so they can enter a narrow hallway bathed in warm colors from the cloth hangings on the walls. She gives Saleha a hug and takes Maryam’s hand in both of hers. “I was just about to make tea.”
Maryam sends Saleha a look that she hopes is not too rude. She needs Taskeen to herself, and her time is limited.
“Thank you,” Saleha clucks, “but I have to be getting back to the office. I’ll leave you to it and stop by sometime tomorrow.”
After the door closes, Taskeen appraises Maryam with sharp eyes. “So. You’re the hot new techie.”
“I don’t know,” Maryam says, surprised. “There are always hotter and newer ones coming along.”
Taskeen laughs, holds up her hands. “Sadly, I don’t speak Arabic, although I always wanted to learn.” she says. “English, perhaps?” she adds in that language, turning to lead Maryam down a short hall.
“My English is not so good,” Maryam says, cringing at her own awful accent. “Français?”
“No,” Taskeen says. “I’ll make you some chai, yes?” Her volume has gone up a notch, even though she knows Maryam can understand her perfectly. “Don’t worry, we have options. I’ve made some modifications to the era-appropriate translation software.” She throws a wink at Maryam as she fills the kettle. “It’s still a bit clunky, but we can use that.”
“¿No entiendes Español, acaso?” Maryam asks.
“Oh!” Taskeen turns, kettle still in her hand. “Do you know, I believe I still do! I’d be hard pressed to speak it, but . . .” She turns back and fiddles with the gas stove, humming to herself. “Yes, let’s try it. I speak whatever I want, and you speak Spanish, and if we get into trouble, we’ll use the translator. Although we’ll have to go into the other room for that.” Nodding happily, she guides Maryam through an entranceway into a small study. A curtained window looks out on the street, but most of the wall is taken up by banks of humming electronics, and a large old-fashioned computer monitor sits between them, a keyboard on the desk below it.
“Wow,” says Maryam, and then, remembering, repeats herself in Spanish. “Vaya.”
“Yes, she’s impressive, isn’t she?” Taskeen pats the computer monitor fondly. “And most people don’t understand how impressed they should be. I’ve souped her up quite a bit. She can do a lot of what your personal handhelds can do, although of course a lot slower.”
Maryam, who had steeled herself to scrupulously avoid all mention of modern technology that was extraneous to her mission, coughs. “You, ah, keep up with the latest innovations?”
“I’m not in anachronism prison, you know,” Taskeen says. “The therapy of being here is wonderful. I feel very young, and I’m grateful for it. But keeping my mind active is just as important. I can’t keep relearning the things I learned when I was ten.”
“Claro que no,” Maryam says, automatically.
Taskeen seats herself in a wheeled chair by the computer and gestures Maryam towards a small sofa that probably already looked old in 2010. “So,” she says, tapping at the keyboard. “What did you want to talk to me about? Something related to the Information substructure, I imagine. Oh, don’t mind this,” she adds when Maryam hesitates. “I’m bringing up the translation program in case we need it. Now go ahead.” She rotates in her chair to face Maryam and folds her hands on her lap, smiling.
Maryam orders her thoughts. Fortunately she’s been using Spanish a lot lately. “I don’t know if you’re aware of this,” she begins, “but there have been some recent incidents attacking Information infrastructure.”
“What kind of attacks? Blackouts? Denial-of-service?” Taskeen is leaning forward, already gripped. Information, the enormous global bureaucracy that collects, sorts, stores, and administers all of the world’s knowledge, underpinning every modern activity. Functionality outages can be devastating. The blackout during the election nearly five years ago brought global commerce and transportation screeching to a halt and almost caused several wars. But that’s not the problem that has brought Maryam thousands of miles and decades into the past.
“No,” she says, “it’s not that; it’s—” A whistle blasts through the apartment, and Maryam jumps, wondering if it’s an earthquake or monsoon alert, or a fire alarm somewhere in this building without Information uplinks.
“That’s the kettle,” Taskeen says, patting Maryam’s knee as she whisks by to the kitchen. “Nothing to worry about! I’ll be right back with the tea.”
Maryam has time to calm her heartbeat before Taskeen returns with two chipped ceramic mugs filled with milky tea. “Here you go, dear. Now, what were you telling me?”
After the respite, Maryam has to psych herself up all over again to divulge the tightly kept secret to this stranger.
“So far, the service interruptions have been minimal,” she starts carefully. “In fact, that’s what’s confusing us. There have been a number of attacks on data transfer stations, and we can’t figure out what the endgame is.”
Taskeen purses her lips and swivels her chair back and forth. “Explain.”
“In each case—there have been five so far—masked assailants break in, incapacitate the staff, disable the station, and leave, all before InfoSec can arrive. The longest they spent on-site was twenty-eight minutes, and that was in a remote area. No equipment has been taken, and the effect on the system . . .”
“Would be minimal,” Taskeen says. “Unless something has gone very wrong since I left, rerouting around a single station outage should be a matter of seconds.”
Maryam blushes, remembering that Taskeen wrote the protocol that has formed the basis for every product in her professional life. “At most, there were some stutters in access in areas local to the attack, and even that never lasted more than a few minutes. Even getting the affected stations back online is a matter of hours.”
“So, why are they doing it?” Taskeen mused, her fingers playing idly on the keyboard in front of her. She picks up her cup, blows on it, and takes a sip. “Tell me more.”
Maryam looks up. “I can share the reports with you, but there’s very little there beyond what we’ve discussed . . .”
“No, I mean the rest of it.” When Maryam stares, the older woman puffs in frustration. “You’re here. If you thought this was random violence, you’d be talking to a security expert, not an outdated programmer.”
Maryam takes a careful breath. “Two years ago, there was an . . . issue, which raised our suspicions.” A global pattern of assassinations of centenal and government leaders unwilling to go along with the misappropriation of Information infrastructure.
“Two years ago?” Taskeen puts down her cup in surprise. “You’ve known about this for two years and you haven’t rooted them out yet?”
Maryam’s brief had been to reveal only what was necessary, but she should have known that necessary would be more than she wanted to discuss when dealing with a retired and presumably bored genius. “We apprehended one suspect, who named two midlevel Information staff as their superiors. But the apprehension of that suspect was quite public”—as part of a failed assassination attempt—“so they had warning, and they absconded before we could arrest them. The thing is—”
“Absconded?” Taskeen wrinkles her nose. “Where to?”
“Null states,” Maryam answers; outside of Information jurisdiction. “Probably Russia. The thing is, almost two hundred other staff disappeared at the same time.”
Maryam can hear the quiet hum from the computer. “That does suggest a larger plot,” Taskeen says finally. “My, my. What has upper management been doing?” Her tone sounds as though she tried to lighten the statement halfway through, and Maryam decides to ignore the criticism of her bosses.
“Most of them were Hub-based centenal support staff who, we’ve found since then, were implicated in attempts to reduce Information coverage. The details are complicated, but . . .”
“You think these attacks are continuing the same project.” Taskeen taps at her keys some more. “Presumably as former employees, they understand the limited impact of shutting down individual transfer stations, so they may be using them as practice for a concerted larger-scale assault.”
“Or they’re trying to use the attacks to learn something about the system.”
“That’s where you come in,” Maryam says.
Taskeen does not immediately leap into the problem the way Maryam would like her to. “So maybe not trying to reduce Information coverage so much as . . . take over?” She is leaning forward again. “You think they’re trying to break your monopoly?”
“It’s not a monopoly,” Maryam says, the coldness of her tone diluted by the fact that she has to search for the word monopoly in Spanish.
“There are justifications for a monopoly on a public good, you know,” Taskeen says mildly. She takes a swallow of tea. “Piggybacking on your infrastructure, that certainly makes sense, at least to start. Rebuilding all of it would be an enormous start-up cost.”
“Exactly.” Maryam tries to sound encouraging, but Taskeen isn’t done with background yet.
“Two years is a long time.”
Maryam offers a rueful chuckle. “Yes,” she says. “I’m afraid it . . . it took us some time to make it a priority.”
“Because you hoped you had nipped the plot in the bud.”
“Yes.” And because there were so many other things going on: internal battles over election rules and Supermajority terms and massive potentially planet-destroying infrastructure projects. And because nobody wanted to believe they’d been betrayed, and those who did believe it wanted to make sure no one else found out about it. “We still don’t know for sure that the same group is responsible for the transfer-station attacks, but we’ve seen a recent upswing in data activity in various null states, most notably in Crimea and along the Baltic coast, which is where we think the majority of the former staff fled.” She pauses, but Taskeen seems surprised by all of this, and it’s easy to think of her as a colleague. “Exformation, as some of us are calling them.”
“And I suppose the general public is taking this all calmly? The mass exodus, the attacks, the potential rival to Information’s power?”
Maryam’s smile disappears. “It’s all public,” she says stiffly.
This time, Taskeen’s laugh doesn’t sound surprised at all. “Public but invisible.” She shakes her head. “Information needs to live by its principles. People are already too inclined to think the worst of it.”
“It’s all there,” Maryam says, her face heating. “You can read about it. If you can get on Information, I mean.”
“Mmm.” Taskeen turns back to her computer and starts tapping again. Maryam wonders if it’s possible that light touch is having some effect, triggering a recording mechanism. It seems unlikely, but she doesn’t know enough about the outdated hardware, and her skin starts to crawl with suspicion. There could be recorders in the room, or some early twenty-first-century analog. She can’t stop her fingers from feeling along the edge of her chair.
Maryam folds her hands back into her lap as Taskeen turns back to her. “You’ve found nothing to indicate who carried out these attacks? Surely, you have cameras, data . . .” She gestures: What good is your surveillance state if you can’t use it to catch anarchist terrorists?
“They put some planning into avoiding feeds,” Maryam explains. Despite the near-ubiquity of cameras, the universal access to the feeds from those cameras makes it possible to avoid them if you work at it: you look at the image and work your way around its borders. “And they wear masks and robes over some kind of frame that hides body type and stride.” She represses a twitch; she saw the footage for the first time while preparing for this visit, and even knowing what to expect, the blank and silent countenances were terrifying. “We’ve been putting more and more resources towards looking for them, but they seem to know the system extremely well.”
“As if they had once worked within it,” Taskeen notes grimly. She claps her hands twice, and Maryam expects a projection to leap out between them, ideally one with answers about unsolved data sabotage, but the older woman rises to her feet instead. “I forgot to bring the sweets.”
While Taskeen is in the kitchen, plates clinking, Maryam quickly kneels to check under the chairs and the computer table. She straightens again, feeling like an idiot—as if the recorders would be visible!—and studies the framed pictures on the walls: Taskeen shaking hands with various dignitaries of the past half-century. She recognizes two presidents of Bangladesh, a prime minister of Nepal, the current queen of Bhutan when she was much younger, and Maryam’s former boss Nejime when she was much, much younger. Maryam turns her attention from the better-known faces to those of Taskeen Khan at various ages, looking for clues in her standardized smile. Maryam wasn’t sure about the gambit of coming here when Nejime suggested it. She’s still not sure that this kind, spry old lady who has long been her hero isn’t her enemy.
“So,” Taskeen says, coming back with a bowl of amriti and the teapot. “You brought something for me to look at?”
“Updated diagrams of the current system. Since you retired, more structures have been layered on top, and it’s not always easy to understand what’s going on at the most fundamental level. We thought you might be able to see something we’re missing that suggests what they could possibly gain from these attacks.”
It sounds ridiculous now that Maryam says it out loud, but Taskeen settles into her seat and holds out a hand. Maryam starts the motion to throw her a file via Information, remembers where she is, and searches in her bag for the small device Saleha gave her. Taskeen takes it and plugs it into the computer.
“So, what are you going to do about this when you find the culprits?” Taskeen asks as she types and clicks away at her computer.
“I’m not going to do anything about it,” Maryam says. She’s watching closely, trying to figure out how the antiquated technology works. “I’m not a policy person. I don’t make decisions, I just implement them—and only technical decisions, at that.”
Taskeen chuckles softly. “Keep telling yourself that, if it comforts you.” She hits one last key triumphantly, and the first diagram comes up. “All right, walk me through this one,” she says her voice shifting into management mode.
Maryam avoids hotel restaurants on the principle that captive audiences lead to decreased quality and value, but after pushing through the crowd that afternoon she has neither the energy nor the desire to go back out on the street. She finds a seat at the bar—a design feature, not a place for selling alcohol, as this centenal teetotals—and peruses the menu, annotated with reviews and ingredient source data.
She has finished her kebab—middling—and is working her way through a salty lassi that’s a little too salty when a man slides himself into the seat next to her. He is skinny and has a wide eager grin as he sits sideways on his chair to face her.
“Hello, miss,” he says. “Where are you from?”
Maryam frowns at her lassi. Her public Information is projected beside her face for all to see. Working for Information is usually enough to discourage unwanted attention, but due to the clandestine nature of this assignment, she has muted that fact. The letters of her name and invented professional affiliation shimmer with a subtle iridescence, but she wouldn’t expect a straight man who tries to pick up women in hotel restaurants to catch that marker of queerness. She’s surprised he didn’t pick up on the font, which is a standard signal of being in a relationship. Maybe that’s more geographically limited than she thought. Either way, she doesn’t feel like dealing with him. She takes a last sip of her lassi and taps across the bits to pay for it.
“Miss, so sorry, I don’t want to bother you.” Against her better judgment, she glances at him: still smiling, but now modulated with apology. “So sorry, but you look like you’re not from around here, and maybe this can help.” He snaps, and an image appears. It looks like a travel guide, a lovely glossy photograph of a packed street in Dhaka, with tons of lines and arrows annotating it. Text flies up above it, briefly in Bengali before rearranging into Arabic under the influence of Maryam’s visual translator and accompanied by a sonorous male voice: “Feeling out of place? Need to know more about the context around you? We can help!”
How odd. Maryam taps her fingertips against her thigh under the counter, composing some quick lines of code. “Why would I buy your travel guide,” she asks, “when I can have as many as I want for free?” She snaps her fingers, imitating him, and four images jump into the air between them, the portals for Dhaka travel guides from four different Information compilers.
The guy laughs in admiration. “Ha! That’s very good!” But Maryam is frowning at the image he called up, still hanging in the air between them. It looks uncomfortably like the street she was stuck in earlier that morning. She is searching for herself in the crowd, but it is too dense to be certain before he flips it off. “You don’t have to buy. This is a free sample, as a gesture of goodwill for a stranger in Dhaka. If you find it useful, maybe you will buy in another place. And you will find it useful. This guide is special. Ask your guides for the best chotpoti in the area, or what gangs roam the streets these days, or what this means in a Tejgaon neighborhood.” He raises his left arm and clasps four fingers from his right arm on the opposite elbow.
Maryam stands up, annoyed. She’s not going to run the searches and give him an opportunity to look triumphant when they’re blank, or press his hard sell, or whatever his game is. She doesn’t look back until she’s left the restaurant, and then only to make sure he didn’t follow her to the stairwell.
This hotel is so old that her room includes a Mecca-pointing arrow on the ceiling; Maryam notes it is a fraction of a degree off from the prayer-orienter she uses, projected in her vision.
Changed and in bed, she calls Núria, but there is no answer. The location monitor puts her somewhere over the Atlantic: deployed again. And heading farther away. Maryam curls into her pillows, turning the temperature up a notch on the climate-controlled sheets for comfort despite the warmth of the night.
To keep herself from checking where Núria is going, wondering if it’s dangerous, speculating how long she’ll be, Maryam projects up some content. She dithers at first between a ringle concert in Tallinn and an episode of Petrarch, a historical novela she’s following with occasional winces. Then she notices a new episode of Centenal Searchers and immediately pulls it up. It’s a great show. The insanely attractive hosts—two women and two men who have flirted with each other in all possible configurations—travel to remote single-centenal governments to explore their idiosyncratic laws and customs. It’s a sweet show, laughing gently at the oddities of the world’s isolated communities but admiring them at the same time, and Maryam relaxes as she watches handsome, goofy Samir interview an elderly man in a one-centenal government in Louisville about their annual horse-racing festival.
When she turns off the projector unease slips back, and before she falls asleep, she wonders if that weird travel-guide presentation was a random sales pitch, or if she’s being targeted.
Maryam wakes to the sound of calamitous construction behind the hotel. She stretches in bed and realizes with surprise she’s looking forward to going back to the sanatorium, almost giddy with it, in fact. Maybe it’s the fun of dressing up in someone else’s clothes. Or maybe slipping out of your accustomed era even for an afternoon has its benefits.
She takes a longer route to avoid pedestrian congestion, and because that photo from the travel guide is still creeping her out, and arrives at the sanatorium with her good mood intact. Saleha looks up from her workspace when Maryam comes in. “Welcome back! You can go to Taskeen’s on your own if you remember the way. Here, I’ll get out of your way for a few minutes so you can change.”
Taskeen greets her warmly at the door. This time the tea is ready, the pot and the mugs waiting in the computer room. “There wasn’t nearly enough intel in those reports,” she chides as Maryam sits down. “The observations by the witnesses are sadly lacking in detail.”
“I think they were a little distracted by the explosives and plastic guns.”
“Hmph. My point is, there is not enough data to draw a solid conclusion about what they are hoping to achieve or how to stop them. However, I do have some suggestions.” Taskeen sits at the computer and busies herself pulling up some diagrams. “So why did you move to La Habana?”
Maryam glances at her sharply. “You accessed Information!”
Taskeen winks. “I told you I keep my mind active. Why did you move? I know La Habana is gaining influence under Batún, but the Doha Hub is still far more powerful.”
“Why did I leave?” Because my boss, whom I like and respect, and my ex-girlfriend who dumped me are circling each other in a struggle for world domination. There is no way that works out well for me. “It was a personal decision,” she says, reminding herself that this elderly, once-powerful woman wants to show she’s still linked in to the inner politics of Information. No reason to imagine an alternative motive for the gossip.
“I see,” Taskeen says, suddenly absorbed with her computer screen. “Here, take a look at this.” She looks over her shoulder. “You’ll have to come over here; it doesn’t project up, remember?”
Maryam stands and leans closer. The glowing screen is filled with lines of code. Maryam has to stare for a few seconds before she can parse them through the antiquated two-dimensional representation of data and dorky fonts. “Wow, you went right to the bricks of it.”
“We built it brick by brick. That’s the part I can help you with. It’s the fancy casings and bells and whistles you people shellacked over it that I don’t understand.” Taskeen scrolls through the endless pages of code, pausing occasionally to dive deeper into subprograms. “I’ve found a couple of weaknesses, I’m sorry to say. But you know, it was a different time: these would have been difficult to exploit with the technology we had then.”
“Crash, yes. That wasn’t so hard, so we had a lot of redundancies and hardware protections. But meaningfully exploiting the system, piggybacking on it in the way you’re talking about?” Taskeen shakes her head. “That requires a more current level of computing and algorithmic power. Of course, I don’t know that they’re doing it at this level. If they’re dealing with the superstructure, I can’t do much for you.” She scrolls some more.
Protesting too much? Maryam wonders. “By the way,” she says. “What does this mean?” When Taskeen looks up at her she repeats the gesture the man made to her in the bar last night.
Taskeen blinks at her, accessing memory. “Stingy,” she says, and turns back to the computer screen.
Maryam wonders if the gesture was a snide comment on her unwillingness to buy the product, or if the vendor uses the same examples on everyone. The latter seems more likely; he would have to know beforehand that the localism isn’t covered on Information. Maryam checks quickly, and there is no reference for it, although apparently a similar gesture has recently evolved to mean something moderately rude along certain trade routes of West Africa.
“Okay,” Taskeen says, finally finding the section she was looking for. “Now, I can’t say for sure that this is what they’re trying to do, not based on what you’ve given me, but this is what I would be after if it were me.”
And what, Maryam thinks as she leans forward, if it was you?
Excerpted from State Tectonics, copyright © 2018 by Malka Older.