Charles Stross Excerpt: Dark State

Hugo Award-winning author Charles Stross dives deep into the underbelly of paratime espionage, nuclear warfare, and state surveillance in Dark State—the provocative techno-thriller set in The Merchant Princes multiverse (available January 9, 2018).

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.

Moscow Rules

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 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 flowerpot 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.

Until now.

He paused for long enough to compose himself, then carefully unwrapped the bouquet of red roses he had brought. Fumbling with the flowerpot, 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 a sandwich shop. 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.

***

 

Copyright © 2018 Charles Stross.

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Charles Stross was born in Leeds, England, in 1964. He has worked as a pharmacist, software engineer and freelance journalist, but now writes full-time. To date, Stross has won three Hugo Awards and been nominated twelve times. He has also won the Locus Award for Best Novel, the Locus Award for Best Novella, and has been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke and Nebula Awards. His books include Empire Games, Dark State, The Merchant Princess series, the Laundry series, and several stand-alone novels including Glasshouse, Accelerando, and Saturn's Children.

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