Null States by Malka Older is the second book in the Centenal Cycle series (available September 19, 2017).
The future of democracy is about to implode.
After the last controversial global election, the global infomocracy that has ensured thirty years of world peace is fraying at the edges. As the new Supermajority government struggles to establish its legitimacy, agents of Information across the globe strive to keep the peace and maintain the flows of data that feed the new world order.
In the newly-incorporated DarFur, a governor dies in a fiery explosion. In Geneva, a superpower hatches plans to bring microdemocracy to its knees. In Central Asia, a sprawling war among archaic states threatens to explode into a global crisis. And across the world, a shadowy plot is growing, threatening to strangle Information with the reins of power.
A huge tree branches high over the entrance to the compound. The shade would be welcome, because even in the rainy season the daytime temperatures are over 43 degrees, but a flock of large white birds is draped over it. Roz has to hope she’ll get used to the smell, but getting in and out of the compound is going to be a literal crapshoot.
Information, projecting annotations and explanations over her vision, can tell her that the tree is an Acacia auriculiformus and that the birds are Ciconia ciconia, but Roz doesn’t find out why they don’t get rid of the birds until Amran’s briefing. It’s the first topic she covers, before the logistics of their meeting with the head of state or even the security guidelines.
“The birds weren’t there when I signed the rental contract three months ago,” Amran tells them, in a tone that says the cawing has already frayed her nerves. The owner of the compound, Halima, is pregnant, and it would be bad luck to disturb the birds and worse luck to cut down the tree. From the sound of it, Amran has mooted both possibilities.
Roz isn’t going to judge her. Amran is the Information field lead for this centenal and will be here for years, while she and the rest of the SVAT team are only in Kas for a week, maybe two. She’s more interested in the problem of how difficult it would have been to get that story from Information. Without the inside knowledge about the pregnancy you could ask about birds and trees all you liked without getting anywhere near the explanation. Roz starts doodling an algorithm.
“According to Information, the birds are seasonal migrants,” Minzhe puts in hopefully.
“Halima says they will leave after the rainy season,” Amran says, but she doesn’t sound cheered. Roz switches on visuals of the local weather forecasts. This week: SUNNY, 47.8. SUNNY, 47.2. SUNNY, 46.1. SUNNY, 48.3. SUNNY, 48.2. SUNNY, 46.7. NEXT WEEK: SUNNY, 49.4. SUNNY, 48.5. SUNNY, 48.8. SUNNY, 48.4. SUNNY, 47.8. SUNNY, 46.1. SUNNY, 46.6. She flips further ahead: SUNNY, SUNNY, SUNNY.
Having explained the smell, Amran is getting into the protein of her presentation with a three-dimensional headshot of a thin, neatly bearded man with a wide smile and twinkling eyes rotating in the center of the room. A personal history tracks down the side of the image. “Abubakar Ahmed Yagoub, known by the identifier Al-Jabali because he was born in the Djabal refugee camp in what was then eastern Chad.”
“And he became centenal governor here?” Charles’s interjection is more disbelief than question, but Amran answers anyway.
“He moved here ten years ago and was one of the key activists pushing for the adoption of micro-democracy. Although of course it didn’t happen until the Sudanese state had collapsed from within, Al-Jabali is credited with laying the groundwork for a smooth transition—and leveraging that into political success, both as centenal governor here and as head of state for the whole DarFur government.”
Amran throws up a large projection of the area previously known as Darfur, now divided into 78 centenals of 100,000 people. Each is empowered to choose its own government from among the over two thousand worldwide, but in this isolated region most of them have stayed local. Thirty of those centenals are held by the DarFur government, led by Al-Jabali. It’s a strong showing for a government competing in its first election, but Al-Jabali doesn’t seem satisfied. The government’s policy papers and rhetoric are rigorously, even stridently pacifist, but there have been troubling occurrences of nationalist talk and hints at expansionism. The most disturbing incident occurred a few weeks ago, when nineteen DarFuri citizens staged a rally in a centenal belonging to 888, a corporate government that originated in China. Al-Jabali has been courting the international stage, promoting the expansion of the DarFur state to anyone who will listen. He hasn’t gotten much play globally, but his rivals here are paying attention.
This is not a particularly sexy assignment—no knife-wielding fanatics ranting about people they hate just across the centenal line, no dicey border redrawings—but Roz can feel a jitter of excitement in the team anyway. For the past year and a half, SVAT agents, the elite of Information’s global bureaucracy, have been cleaning up the mess left by the last election. Confusion, sabotage, recounts, and fraud sparked low-level conflicts in more than a hundred centenals worldwide. The first, urgent missions put SVAT agents and security officers up close and in the faces of swindled voters to explain what happened and why they shouldn’t take out their frustration on their rivals, the ones they thought they had vanquished politically. Progress was slow and irregular, but the work was never boring, and less than two years later the handful of remaining battles have settled into a tense equilibrium. It isn’t over, but this is their first job not directly related to the election fraud since it happened. Finally, they’re back to classic SVAT work: a populace that, after a long history of propaganda exposure and conflict, is high-risk for nationalism and other pathologies, and a charismatic new government that doesn’t yet understand the extent to which Information will call them on their exaggerations.
Amran is going through the locations of various episodes on the map, sometimes showing vid or zooming in for a quick auto-tour. “Al-Jabali has said he will address these problems, and there is no hint yet of open conflict, but given the history of this region, your team was requested as a precautionary measure.” Roz notes the passive voice and wonders whether Amran opposed their deployment. She hasn’t been here very long herself; she might have wanted a chance to work on things before the Specialized Voter Action Tactics experts swooped in to save the day.
“It’s tough when people who have been the losers for so long finally get their chance, only to find the rules have changed,” Maria comments. Roz is mildly surprised to hear that kind of empathy-based extrapolation from a pollster. Maria is the only member of the four-person team Roz hasn’t worked with before, and Roz hasn’t had time yet to form an opinion.
“Ten years must seem like a long time to wait for their next chance to expand,” Charles agrees. Round-headed and fortysomething, he’s the oldest team member and the one Roz has worked with the most: solid, skilled at building rapport with local elites, and not in the least starry-eyed about Information. She wonders if he’s making his feelings known about the latest controversy in the upper reaches of the bureaucracy. The director level at Information is concerned enough about cynicism and disengagement—and the competence of the new Policy1st Supermajority—that they’re considering speeding up the election cycle, holding them every five years instead of every ten. For now, those discussions are both secret and hypothetical.
Amran’s presentation is over, and they should get moving. “For today,” Roz begins. “Let’s focus on building the relationship with Al-Jabali, learning how he sees things. Reinforce election protocol in the background, but subtly. And listen for issues where we can work with Al-Jabali to make him—them—happy.” She looks at Amran. “Is it time for our meeting?”
Amran blinks, probably glancing at the time in her personal, eyeball-level projection. “Uh, yes, we should head over there.” She is twisting her hands in the front of her long skirt. “Actually, Al-Jabali may be a few minutes late. It seems he’s traveling from another DarFur centenal.” Unusual to make an Information team wait. Roz steels herself for an uncomfortable mission. “The visit was planned before I gave him the SVAT team’s schedule,” Amran adds, but Roz is still skeptical.
“Can you confirm his ETA?” Charles asks. They are sitting in a square brick room, one of two freestanding offices inside the compound. There is a wide-bladed fan shuffling air through the vent openings high in the walls, and the outside of the building is wrapped in heat reflectors, giving the interior the feel of a shaded courtyard. Even so, Roz can feel sweat dripping down her back. No one wants to stand out in the sun waiting for a dignitary any longer than necessary. Amran blinks rapidly, checking his location and trajectory on Information.
“Twenty-two minutes,” she says. “But the rest of the government is already assembling at the arrival area, so we should go.”
They take the exit under the bird-filled tree like a gauntlet, one by one, dodging between the white splatters on the sandy ground. Outside the brick wall of the compound, the packed-sand street runs straight between other similar walls, some of reed or sticks, others reaching the exalted level of concrete. A pair of children guiding a donkey with taps from a branch pass them at the cross street. There is little else to see, and everything is in shades of brown and beige. Information here is starved for complexity, for objects to identify and backstories to report on, and Roz gets a wealth of detail about everything she sees: the bricks were baked on the outskirts of town; the reeds are collected during the rainy season; the concrete comes in by truck over pitted dirt roads through the desert, their routes traced on maps that hover briefly before her eyes, 60% transparent. The children have no public Information showing, but the donkey is a Riffawi.
Despite the dullness of the colors and scarcity of input—no pop-out advids, even!—the newness of it all sparkles for Roz. She always enjoys this time at the beginning of a deployment, when all the Information is fresh and she can feel a composite understanding of the place building piece by piece in her mind.
She finds herself walking next to Minzhe. “How does it feel to be home?” she asks. Minzhe knows this area better than any of them. He grew up in Nyala, the largest nearby city, in what is now a centenal belonging to 888.
“Pretty good, actually. It’s been a while.” He stretches his shoulders back and exhales, as though the intense heat and burning glare of sun off sand are pleasant for him. All of them are wearing heat-reflective clothing except for Minzhe, who’s wearing a flowing white jellabiya. Roz is sweltering despite the climate-control properties of her iridescent trousers, but Minzhe wears the thin cotton as though he belongs there. She doesn’t even think he’s sweating. “They almost didn’t let me come, can you believe that?”
“Because of my mother. In the end, though, they decided it wouldn’t be too much of a conflict.”
Roz has no idea what he’s talking about, and glances down so she can check with Information. If he sees the update flashing against her eye, he won’t be offended: he gave her enough of a cue to search on without volunteering the intel himself, so looking it up is the most appropriate response.
In the meantime, she keeps up the small talk. “I don’t know. I feel like I get sent on every African mission they get. And where I’m from is nothing like this place.” Culturally, climactically, ethnically.
“I bet they’ve never sent you to your hometown, though, right?”
True. But her home is a special case. She sees that Minzhe’s mother is now the governor of the centenal he grew up in. Roz can understand why that would give them pause. Information always tries to avoid letting its officers get too close to their jobs; that’s why Amran, the field lead here, is Somali instead of Fur or Beri or anything else from this region. “Besides,” Minzhe goes on, “it wouldn’t go over so well if everyone on this mission looked more like me or Maria than like you and Charles.”
Maria, chatting with Charles a few paces ahead of them, has already turned ruddy with the sun, giving her narrow, slightly puffy face a chafed look. She has a translucent blue scarf pulled loosely over her light brown hair, though Amran told them that foreigners don’t need to cover their heads. The public Information that Roz sees projected next to her face gives her hometown as 5370293. It’s unusual to identify where you’re from with centenal number instead of municipal name. Roz wonders if it’s because she comes from an impossibly rural place that no one has ever heard of, or if she is demonstrating some extreme commitment to the election system. Roz skips the mapping exercise of finding out exactly where 5370293 is and checks with her translator instead. Maria has been speaking Swedish.
The road leaves the residential compounds behind and enters rows of tents and shacks: a market zone. Roz has her Information configured to keep a small map at the bottom right of her vision, available for quick enlargement, but in the market she is also offered glowing signposts projected against her vision: IRONWORKERS down this row to the left, HAND PUMP to the right, POTTERY AND BASKETS beyond it. The flies and her nose tell her before the projections do when they approach the butchers’ section: much worse than the guano back at the compound. The restaurant section is after that, which is probably logistically convenient but a bit too much for Roz’s appetite. Minzhe, on the other hand, sniffs hungrily at the aroma of roasting meat. “Look at that.” He points with his chin at a hefty haunch of geep turning on a spit, the juices dripping into the fire pit. “We’re coming back here after the meeting.”
“They may have planned a meal for us,” Roz points out, amused.
“All right, later tonight, then! Best way to get to know a centenal is to have tea in the market.”
Roz is about to murmur an agreement when she is distracted by something black and gleaming in the thicket of people moving along a cross street. She turns her head to look, and among the cloth of many colors, the baskets riding high on women’s heads and the glare of the sun she sees it again, black and shiny and in the shape of an automatic rifle. The man holding it is wearing olive drab and moving away from her; a second later, he is completely blocked from view by other bodies.
Roz slips a hand into her satchel and activates the small personal Lumper she carries with her. Its range should just about reach the man with the gun, rendering the firearm inoperable if it wasn’t already. It’s hard to imagine that this place hasn’t been thoroughly Lumpered over the past few years, and Roz supposes that properly Lumpered, harmless firearms may have kept some talismanic or status value here, where they held sway for so long. Probably what she saw is exactly that.
Which ought to put her mind at ease. But something about the gleam of light on the surface didn’t look quite right. What if the gun isn’t metal? Is it possible that the DarFur government, or some of its lower-level officials, countenance overt display of plastic weapons? It seems unlikely. Information, which has just identified the head of the market committee, sitting among his plastic wares with a couple of other men, has nothing to say on the subject, which makes it almost certain it isn’t happening.
While she is craning her head after what is either a lethal weapon or a harmless anachronism, the rest of the procession bunches up in front of her. They have come up against a long, low wall running along the edge of the market and painted with an extended graphic news strip, each panel roughly the size of a market stall. “How brilliant!” laughs Maria. Roz squeezes into a place where she can read the section in front of them.
The first panel portrays the Mighty Vs: Vera Kubugli and Veena Rasmussen, the co-heads of state for the Supermajority government, Policy1st. Bas-relief headshots have been printed out and stuck above hand-painted bodies with a shared word bubble: Corporations and the corporate governments they sponsor are separate, it says (as Roz reads through her visual translator, Information agrees in a projected footnote that this is true, and offers citations for the legal basis). Corporations should no longer be able to use their profits for corporate government election campaigns. A separate bubble at the bottom editorializes: Maybe they could use them to pay employees a little more instead!
The next box shows Adaku Achike, the regional representative of 888, and Thaddeus Legressus, a spokesperson for PhilipMorris, rebutting with their own arguments about free speech, intertwined interests, and private property. The cartoonist has added a cigarette dangling from Thaddeus’s mouth, even though he never smokes in public. The third panel is a cartoon of the Information building in Khartoum, which has a recognizable domed shape and is probably a familiar metonymic for the readers, with a hefty bit of text explaining the current statute and the timetable for reviewing the case. Information, as usual, attracts wordiness and boring illustrations.
That doesn’t hold for the final panel, which is an exaggerated caricature of Vera Kubugli attempting to hunt a boa constrictor with a falcon. The raptor, labeled INFORMATION along its tail feathers, is too busy leafing through a huge tome. In the meantime the boa, a distension the shape of Africa in its middle, has wound the end of its tail around the leg of the Mighty V.
Pointed, almost over the top, but wobbling just this side of libel. Glancing down the wall, Roz sees that the next strip is an update on the legal processes against Heritage, the former Supermajority, and beyond that is a series of panels on a recent social capital pyramid scheme.
Strictly speaking, the cartoons are superfluous. All of this data is available on Information, to everyone. Functionally illiterate people can have their news read to them on Information, and accessibility for different levels of education has been a major objective, so there are options for various degrees of language comprehension. But someone—Information tells Roz it was the town council of sheikhs—thinks literacy is important, and the public comic strip seems to be getting people to read. There are a number of locals meandering up and down, taking it in, and farther along Roz sees what looks like a café set up so the customers can enjoy the view while they sip their glass cups of tea.
The meeting area is on the other side of the wall, about half a kilometer outside of town. There is only one species of shrub visible and very little else, so Roz has plenty of time to find out from Information that the reason for the remoteness is the traditional need for a landing strip for fixed-wing aircraft or helicopters. Even the more versatile modes of transportation tend to disembark at the same spot, at least on formal occasions. As they draw closer, she can see that a small stage has been arranged at one end of the dusty field, thankfully with a woven-reed roof tilted overhead. A small delegation is waiting for them: three men in flowing white robes, two with white turbans on top and the other wearing a cap, and three women in equally flowing but much more colorful attire. Roz is glad they kept the SVAT team down to four; after including Amran, they are still fewer than the centenal government group.
During the round of greetings, Roz keeps a close watch on Amran and Minzhe. Clasping of hands, long repetitions of similar phrases and occasional questions rendered meaningless by the lack of any follow-up or answer: Welcome, God be with you, Praise God, Good to see you, And your family? In God’s name, Are you well? God is merciful, God is great. She follows the pattern as well as she can. When the flurry of introductions has settled and Amran has reported that the governor is only a few minutes out, Roz finds herself standing beside the deputy governor, the highest-ranking official present. It’s not an accident; the Information bureaucracy downplays its hierarchy, but Roz is the team leader, and everyone here knows it.
The deputy governor is younger than she might have expected, but Al-Jabali is young and charismatic too, so maybe this is part of their brand. Roz has already forgotten all the names she just learned, but his public Information displays a graceful sweep of calligraphy beside his head. Her visual translator lets her appreciate it for a few seconds before resolving it into the Roman alphabet: Suleyman.
“Your first visit to this area?” he asks, when her eyes shift from the display to meet his.
“Yes,” Roz says, and tries to think of something complimentary she can say about what she’s seen over the past few hours. She’s sure some people think of this place as beautiful, but deserts are not her idea of paradise.
“Very different from where you are from, perhaps?”
Roz catches a knowing amusement in his eyes and laughs. She’s still thinking in diplo-speak, though, and asks a question rather than answering directly. “Do you get a lot of visitors?”
“We got very many in the time before the elections,” the sheikh says. Of course they did. The eastern Sahel was one of the last entrants to micro-democracy before the vote; they must have been flooded with technicians, activists, campaigners. “And afterward some, I believe they called themselves ‘adventure tourists’. They came to feel afraid here, where we live.” He opens his hand, turns it up toward the sky in mystification. “Hard to understand. But recently that has dropped off.”
“I see.” Roz can’t imagine coming here on purpose, without getting paid for it. Even if feeling afraid is your thing, there must be more thrilling places to do it. Not to mention cooler.
“And what are you here to do?”
Roz looks at him in surprise. “We were asked to support your new government in relations with neighboring centenals.” Her words trail off and her face starts to heat. The sheikh’s expression hasn’t changed, but somehow she knows that he’s not asking about the official job description. Of course he knows why they’re here, and if he didn’t, he wouldn’t be admitting it.
“You are checking up on us? Policing us?” The question is hostile, but his tone is level, courteous even, and the warmth in his expression has not changed.
“We’re here to provide support,” Roz repeats. “You can request for us to leave if you don’t want us here.” This man really is extraordinarily attractive. His very dark skin is smooth and almost luminous, his features rounded and even. Roz is sure he knows that Information can overrule a request for a SVAT team to exit a centenal.
“Of course we won’t ask you to leave. You are our guests. But we like to know what our guests are looking for here, so we can be sure that they are satisfied.”
“Very hospitable,” Roz says, trying to keep it as smooth as his comment. The sheikh offers a small bow, and she thinks she sees a smile on his lips.
The sun is still beating down on them. Roz glances at the horizon, hoping for some sign of the governor’s transport. She sees nothing but sand, scrubs, and, over her right shoulder, Charles’s face squinting into the distance.
“Imagine him making us wait out here,” Charles mutters when she meets his eyes.
She tries to imagine Al-Jabali. Young, new at this, surrounded by rivals and enemies even more than most politicians. He chose to become a centenal governor as well as head of state, so he’s ambitious. And yet the fact that he’s not here attending to them suggests he’s opposed to Information and confident enough to show it. Or maybe he’s just not very good at this part of his job, Roz thinks. Maybe schedules get away from him. Maybe he’s not anti-Information per se but trying to assert his independence. She glances at Amran, thinking they’ll need a much more thorough rundown of local politics.
“The governor is very sorry to be late,” Suleyman says on her left. Roz is almost certain he can’t have heard Charles’s comment unless he’s using something to augment his hearing. “He will want to tell you himself, but there is still much work to do in our centenals. We had very little budget or autonomy before independence, and we are trying our level best to make up for lost time.”
Roz smiles and nods. Rare for a politician to admit weakness like that; whatever they’re hiding must be even more embarrassing than getting up to speed on basic governance. A minor insurgency? Some looming political crisis? She becomes aware of the faintest of hums against her eardrum, at first more a sensation than a sound. As it grows into a buzz the people around her shift, turning their gaze south, and a moment later, Roz makes out a dark smudge against the undifferentiated beige of the distance.
“He hopes your visit can be helpful in a number of ways,” the deputy goes on.
“We also hope so,” Roz answers. After a pause, she asks, “Are you from this centenal?”
“Yes,” Suleyman says. “I was born here, and my parents never fled to Chad. Except for some small trips within the region, I’ve lived in Kas my whole life.”
Roz wonders what that must be like. She’s lived abroad since university, and she can never go home. Thinking of that, and because the deputy has turned his attention to the approaching vehicles, she glances down and taps out a message to her parents: arrived safe. interesting place, it looks like what the rest of the world thinks of Africa. They’ll find that amusing. talk soon. She sends it and looks up again, hoping that wasn’t too obvious.
Suleyman either didn’t notice or is politely ignoring her inattention. She follows his gaze into the emptiness of the landscape. Roz thought she had gotten used to the desert from living in Doha, but this is different. There is no city to hold it off. This land feels unfinished and in-between, scrubby semi-aridity that has been pushing closer to absolute desert over the past century.
“Look at that,” Charles murmurs. The smudge has gotten closer, and Roz can make out the tight formation of three tsubames. White cloth streams out behind each two-person craft, as if they were wearing the traditional jellabiyas. He clicks his tongue. “Why do these African leaders always have to make such a big deal of themselves? And why do we fall for it?”
“Oh, right,” Roz says, glancing over at him. “European princelings never do pomp and circumstance.”
Because she is turned toward him, she misses the moment of the explosion.
She sees the shock on his face at the same time as she hears the bang, louder than she would have thought possible, and a clattering smash that sounds like it will never end, so rushed and unstoppable that she jumps away from it, raising her arms as though the wreckage is about to crush her instead of smashing into the sand half a kilometer away. Through the explosion she hears, or feels, the abbreviated gasp from the man next to her, like a shout cut off by breathlessness.
It must all be on vid, Roz thinks as her head turns toward the sound. Even out here, there must have been a feed trained on that. She’ll be able to see the explosion in detail and in slow motion as often as she wants. Probably many, many more times than she wants. Her eyes focus on the flicker of flame overhung by a spiraling column of dark smoke. There’s definitely a feed on this receiving stand, so she’ll be able to check reactions. Unable to stop herself, though she knows she’s about to be too late again, she swings her head back around to the deputy governor, automatically her first suspect. His face shows shock, or a good imitation: mouth slightly open, eyes wild. Then he is down off the platform and plunging across the sand toward the scene of the crash. Roz leaps after him.
Copyright © 2017 Malka Older.
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Malka Older is a writer, humanitarian worker, and PhD candidate at the Centre de Sociologie des Organisations studying governance and disasters. Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than eight years of experience in humanitarian aid and development, and has responded to complex emergencies and natural disasters in Uganda, Darfur, Indonesia, Japan, and Mali.