Hugo Award-winning author Charlie Stross hits the ground running with Empire Games, provocative techno-thriller and fresh storyline in the Merchant Princes universe.
It’s 2020. Two nuclear superpowers across timelines, one in the midst of a technological revolution and the other a hyper-police state, are set on a collision course. Each timeline’s increasingly desperate paratime espionage agencies are fumbling around in the dark, trying to find a solution to the first-contact problem that doesn't result in a nuclear holocaust.
And two paratime travellers, Ministry of Intertemporal Research and Intelligence Commissioner Miriam Burgeson and newly minted spy Rita Douglasa mother and her long-lost, adopted daughterare about to find themselves on opposite sides of the confrontation.
About the Author
Charles Stross is the author of the bestselling Merchant Princes series, the Laundry series, and several stand-alone novels including Glasshouse, Accelerando, and Saturn's Children. Born in Leeds, England, in 1964, Stross studied in London and Bradford, earning degrees in pharmacy and computer science. Over the next decade and a half he worked as a pharmacist, a technical writer, a software engineer, and eventually as a prolific journalist covering the IT industry. His short fiction began attracting wide attention in the late 1990s; his first novel, Singularity Sky, appeared in 2003. He has subsequently won the Hugo Award twice. He lives with his wife in Edinburgh, Scotland, in a flat that is slightly older than the state of Texas.
Read an Excerpt
By Charles Stross
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2016 Charles Stross
All rights reserved.
SEATTLE, MARCH 2020
Rita awakened to the eerie warble of her phone's alarm, followed by NPR cutting in with the morning newscast. (Oil hitting a thirty-year low, $25 a barrel: a Republican senator calling for a tax on imports from other time lines, to prevent global warming.) She rolled over on the sofa bed and grabbed for it, suppressing a moan. It was five o'clock in the morning, pitch black but for the faint glow of parking lot floodlights leaking into the motel room. Today was Friday: last day of the trade show. Tomorrow they were due to pack everything up and head home. But today —
Today was their last day on stage demoing HaptoTech's hardware while their boss, Clive, worked the audience for contacts and (eventually) sales. Last day of mandatory stage makeup and smiles, last day of booth-bunny manners, last day performing their canned routines under the spotlights. Last fucking day. Hoo-rah. The end couldn't come soon enough for her. HaptoTech sold motion capture gear for the animation industry: kits for digitizing body movements so they could be replayed in cartoons and computer games. Unlike most MoCap rigs, which were suits you wore or pods you strapped on, HaptoTech's consisted of tiny implants, injected under the performer's skin. Supposedly this gave more precision and better inputs on musculature. What the brochure didn't say was that the implants itched.
Rita sat up and stretched, trying not to scratch. Her muscles ached from yesterday's workout. She'd taken the folding bed in the motel suite's day room, happy not to arm-wrestle with Deborah and Julie over the twin beds next door. Deborah snored when she slept (and complained when she was awake), and Julie talked too much, oversharing her religion enthusiastically. Rita had agreed to double up with them only because it was that or no contract for the trade show gig, which paid just well enough to make it worthwhile. Clive was a cheapskate, but even a cheapskate paying her by the hour was better than no contract (and no money). But by day 4 of a week of twelve-hour shifts, she was well past second thoughts and into thirds, if not fourths.
She wove her way past the wreckage of last night's rushed takeout and padded into the bathroom. She'd been too tired to scrub off every last bit of greasepaint the night before: now she made good. By the time she finished fixing the oversight, someone else was banging on the bathroom door with steadily increasing desperation.
Rita opened the door and found herself nose to nose with Julie. "Hey," Julie squeaked angrily: "gangway!"
Rita sidestepped and the bathroom door slammed behind her. Sharing three to a suite was one thing, but three to a bathroom was something else.
"Sleep well?" Rita asked, trying to keep her tone light. Deb paused her brushing long enough to glare and shake her head, then went back to untangling. Rita turned to the coffeepot: she'd refilled the water jug last night before hitting the sack, a preparation that stood her in good stead this morning.
While the coffeemaker was burbling, she laid out her costume for inspection. There were no catastrophic stains: good. The nanotech fabric treatment might keep it smelling fresh for weeks, but couldn't work miracles. All it would take was one drunk conference delegate with a glass of red wine to ruin her costume and put her out of a job. "One more day," she muttered to herself. "Just one more day." The implants in her right arm itched momentarily, making a muscle twitch.
"Looking forward to getting home?" Julie asked behind her.
Rita tensed. "Yeah," she admitted. "And to getting these fucking things out."
"They itch like scabies," Julie said thoughtlessly, and a moment later: "A kid brought that to the summer camp I was at one year. Didn't go there again."
Rita gave in to the impulse to rub furiously at the inside of her left arm, then made herself stop. If she'd known what this gig would come with she wouldn't have bothered. Clive had worked them like dogs all week; she hadn't even had time to check Facebook, much less go for a walk and log some geocaches — her hobby. It was wake, eat, work, sleep all the time.
"I think Clive said he closed a five-implant deal with a German games company yesterday. That's a five-grand commission between us, right? If he gets the export licenses."
You needed an export license to send any kind of high-tech kit out of Fortress USA these days: it was optimistic to expect to be allowed to sell the implants to Germany. Julie invariably looked on the bright side of things. It probably explained why she'd tried to become an archaeologist, before the bottom fell out of the profession. Not that Rita was in any position to throw stones. She nodded, not wanting to burst Julie's bubble. Just over twelve hundred bucks would vanish into her student loan account like a bucket of water into a polluted reservoir. She made herself smile: "Let's go break a leg. Maybe Clive can sell another bunch?"
Through the bathroom door, the sound of a toilet flushing.
"Like, yeah. Whatevs. Wire me up."
They drank coffee in the predawn gloom, three mid-twenties acting temps sharing a cheap motel suite just off I-5. Then they helped each other into their demo outfits, first strapping on the battery packs and inductive chargers, then testing their implants before pulling on their costumes and taking turns applying their makeup. Finally they were ready to head to the Waterfront trade center. Rita drove, an Indian princess in sari and coronet, her passengers a sixties schoolmarm in beehive and butterfly glasses and a time-traveling Martian debutante in silver boots and shoulder pads.
She didn't know it yet, but it would be the last normal workday of her career.
* * *
When they hit the queue to the exhibitor entrance, the Indian princess ran into an unexpected obstacle: Homeland Security had decided to come calling.
When they arrived they found a crowd of casual-Friday techies, salesmen, and suited women with conservative hairdos backed up in front of a security checkpoint that hadn't been there the day before. Rita found herself corralled between crowd control barriers patrolled by local cops and DHS heavies in dull black body armor. A couple of small missile-carrying quadrotor drones buzzed overhead like angry hornets, scattering the seagulls.
"ID checkpoint!" called one of the officers, pacing along the side of the queue, watching through mirrored goggles with professional disinterest: "ID checkpoint! Everybody have your ID card and conference badge ready for inspection."
"Oh shit," whispered Deborah, clutching her handbag. She began to rummage through it. "Coulda sworn it was in here —"
Failure to present a federal identity card if challenged by a DHS officer was a misdemeanor at best. If it got Deborah barred from the convention center it was going to have consequences for all three of them: Rita knew that she and Julie couldn't shoulder the workload on their own, and Clive would be pissed if his showgirls didn't show on the last day. "Chill," Rita whispered, touching Deborah's arm reassuringly. Please don't get us noticed, she prayed. Debs and Julie were white but Rita's skin, although pale for her costume, was sufficiently Indian-looking to draw more than her fair share of attention from the cops. And she'd heard enough horror stories that the last thing she wanted was to come to the attention of DHS and CBP.
Deborah was shaking as she rummaged through her handbag again. Touch-up kit, emergency tampon, fatphone, data glasses, purse ... a sudden gasp. "I found it."
"Good." Rita faked another smile as Deborah caught her breath. Panic averted.
"You. Step this way, please."
For a moment Rita couldn't believe her ears. She'd been so focused on Deborah that she hadn't noticed the DHS guy pause on the other side of the barrier. Now he was looking at her. "Me?" she squeaked.
"Yes, you. Step this way." He didn't say "please" twice. The DHS might have hired Disney to train their staff in better people-handling skills but he was still a fed, with or without the smiling mask.
The cop directed her to a desk beside the checkpoint, at the front of the queue where a couple more DHS officers were hanging out. Some of them were armed with electric-blue pump-action shotguns: crowd control tasers. Her stomach lurched when she saw them.
"ID card goes here," said the guy at the desk. He sounded so bored he could have been stoned. She handed the credit card–sized rectangle over and he ran it through the reader. "Okaaay, this is a cheek swab. You've done this before, right?" Blue-gloved hands extended a plastic test stick toward her. "Open wide. This won't take long."
Rita opened her mouth, let the cop collect a saliva sample and lock it into the tablet on the desk in front of him. "Please sit here." He pointed at a plastic chair. "This will take a couple of minutes to develop." Rita gathered the skirts of her sari and sat carefully. No zip-ties, she realized: That's a good sign. Means it's just a random check. Nevertheless, they were running a full genome sequence from the sample they'd just taken, comparing it against her record in the national database. Even with the newest nanopore scanners, it would take ten minutes. They couldn't do it to everyone: they'd be here all day. Why me? she wondered. Well yeah, the usual: skin color. Mom and Dad might be of Eurasian descent, but one of Rita's birth parents had apparently been Indian.
It had been bad in second grade, right after 9/11, but when the White House was nuked, the post-7/16 paranoia had taken things to the next level. The government had announced that the attack came from a terrifying new direction, hostile forces that inhabited another parallel version of our Earth. So that made any stranger a suspect, as anyone could be a secret "world-walker," able to slip between universes and visit from a time line whose history had diverged long ago. Then, as if that wasn't bad enough, there'd been the India/Pakistan nuclear war. From which point on, the US had become increasingly difficult for people who looked like her.
The machine on the desk beeped for attention and the DHS officer peered at it. For a moment she thought he was doing a double take; then he smirked. "Okay, you're good to go. You have a nice day now, Miss Douglas. You can go right in."
"Thank you," she managed, heartbeat fluttering for a light-headed moment. The National Identity Database would have reported back, No criminal history. Because Rita was a good girl, and keeping her head down was an ingrained habit. And good girls tried not to get the post-7/16 national security apparatus mad at them, didn't they? She faked a smile for the cop, then scurried hastily in the direction indicated, into the bowels of the bustling conference center, enormously relieved to be out from under the microscope. Behind her, Debs was staring daggers from the middle of the slowly shuffling line. As if she had anything to worry about ...
* * *
HaptoTech was a Cambridge-based biomechanics start-up. Rita was a Boston native in her mid-twenties with a major in history, a minor in acting, an aptitude for interpretative dance, and no union card. This made her a decent fit for demoing HaptoTech's newest motion capture implants at trade shows targeting the film, TV, and games production industries, although she drew the line at their more adult-themed customers. She needed the money, but not that badly: at least not yet.
It wasn't a new field — MoCap had been around since the '90s — but HaptoTech had a new angle: accurate to fractional millimeters, its subdermal implants could capture actors' pulse, respiration, and sweat. All stuff that fed into that difficult skin texture model, making for a more realistic simulation. Rita, Deborah, and Julie spent the day being filmed as they acted out twenty-minute vignettes, with the results animated in real time and projected live onto a big screen. A brace of servers turned their motion capture streams into mythological monsters, animals, and famous dead film stars. Rita's angle was her arms: she had two of them in real life, but six of them — realistically rendered — in her role on screen as the goddess Parvati, played by the immortal (and longdead) Bollywood star Madhubala.
By the end of day 1 her script had become almost second nature; now she barely noticed the spectators. They weren't looking at her, anyway: they were watching the dead goddess on the screen. When they did look at her she made a point of avoiding eye contact. It was hot, boring work, and the implants itched abominably. Food was on the company, a pile of breakfast rolls served beside Folgers coffee. By five o'clock on Friday Rita was burned out. Deborah and Julie were phoning it in too, their smiles fixed, limbs shaky with tiredness. The hourly rate was great, and working for an East Coast start-up as a bluescreen babe was far better than any acting job she could aspire to — not that anyone except an already established star could make money in acting anymore. But it was a career dead end, working on stage for six hours a day was draining, and the prospects for HaptoTech keeping her on did not seem good: so she was already worrying about what she'd do next.
Stepping off stage after her 5 p.m. act — trying not to trip on her hem or lose track of the end of her sari — Rita nearly ran into Clive. HaptoTech's VP of marketing was conventionally handsome in a rugged country-club way, with a five-thousand-dollar smile and an open-collared shirt under his linen suit. He smiled at her affably: "Rita, if you've got a moment, please? We need to talk in private."
"Sure, Clive! Anytime!" Oh shit, she thought. It was the end of the show: the perfect time for layoffs, especially if he was planning on screwing people over. Her heart sinking, she followed him off the stage. Behind their show area there was a small, airless space backing onto a couple of other stands. There were no chairs, but a man and a woman were waiting there. At first she almost thought they were sales leads, but the black suits, cheap haircuts, and government-issue surveillance eyewear was all wrong. They smelled of —
"Rita Douglas?" asked the woman. She held up a badge, unsmiling: "DHS, Officer Gomez. Come with us, please."
Rita froze. "A-am I under arrest?" she asked.
"No." Gomez glanced at her companion. "Your turn."
He made eye contact with Clive. "You can go now," he said. "You never saw us and this never happened."
Clive turned and left without a backward glance. Bastard, Rita thought tiredly. Fair-weather boss. Snitch. Informer. "What is this?" she asked, trying to put on a calm expression. Her stomach lurched.
"We want to ask you some questions," Gomez said bluntly. Her posture was tense. "Please look at this card and tell me what you see." She held out a badge wallet toward Rita, then flipped it open.
Rita stared. The cops watched her expectantly: "It's some kind of knot. Celtic knotwork?" Her brow furrowed. "Why? What's it meant to be?"
The two DHS agents shared a look. "Told you so," murmured the man. They both relaxed infinitesimally. He looked at Rita: "As Sonia said, we'd like to ask you some questions. It's about something you might have witnessed without realizing what was going on." He smiled, but Rita could tell a fake when she saw one. "You are not under arrest. You are not a suspect in any investigation, although I should warn you that anything you say will be recorded." He shrugged. "But we'd prefer you to come with us voluntarily. That way we can eliminate you as a material witness from an ongoing investigation and let you go." Rita, filling in the blanks, caught the implied or else.
"Uh, my rental car's —" Rita's head was spinning. "We're checking out tomorrow morning. Due to fly home." Flying with HaptoTech implants still embedded was a nightmare at every security checkpoint, and it would take outpatient surgery to get them removed. HaptoTech would pay for it, but in the meantime she'd be stuck with the itching, not to mention Clive's whining because the damned things were expensive. "I was supposed to give Julie and Deborah a ride — what about them?"
"We're the government: we can take care of everything." The male agent grinned at her humorlessly. "You're in suite 119 at the Motel Six on I-5, right?" Rita nodded. "Give me your rental's key fob. We'll sort everything out for you."
Excerpted from Empire Games by Charles Stross. Copyright © 2016 Charles Stross. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Main Time Lines,
Main Character Profiles,
Part One: Dog and Pony Show,
Part Two: Fast Track,
In the Valley of the Shadow of the Gate,
Part Three: Dark State,
Principal Cast List,
Glossary of Terms,
Tor Books by Charles Stross,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Hard to put down. Glad I read the previous books in this series. Looking forward to the next one.
‘Empire Games’ is the start of a new trilogy, and a biting commentary on the modern security state that's been unfortunately overshadowed by the contemporary horrors that don't even have this book's veneer of civility. That said, if you want modern thriller SF, it's hard to get more on-the-nose than this.