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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 long-dead) 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.”
“How long is this going to take?” she asked dubiously, handing over the keys.
“Not long; we’ll probably be through with you by Sunday.”
Rita forced herself to conceal her dismay. Gomez added: “If you cooperate fully, we’ll book you a replacement flight home.”
What was that ancient Chinese curse? May you live in interesting times, and may you come to the attention of people in authority. “Okay,” said Rita, trying hard to sound calm. “Whatever you want.” I am a cooperative citizen, sir. Nothing to see here. She paused. “But can I grab something to eat, and some makeup remover pads?”
The female agent nodded. “We can do that,” she said, and Rita felt the words with the force of imaginary handcuffs closing around her wrists. “I promise you won’t regret this, Ms. Douglas.”
She was lying, of course.
BALTIMORE, NOVEMBER 2019
FEDERAL EMPLOYEE 004910023 CLASSIFIED VOICE TRANSCRIPT
COL. SMITH: Okay, so today we’re evaluating the prototype candidate identified by our data trawl. Name’s Douglas, Rita Douglas. Age 25. Which is to say, at least 5 years too old to be part of the DRAGON’S TEETH world-walker breeding program we uncovered back in the day.
DR. SCRANTON: (throat-clearing noise) Messy.
AGENT O’NEILL: If she isn’t one of the DRAGON’S TEETH children, where did she come from?
COL. SMITH: Douglas may not be part of the world-walkers’ project but she’s listed in the database we captured back in ’03. So we ran her DNA profile with forensics against the, the FBI’s Alternate World Terror Suspects Index. And it turns out there’s a three-sigma maternity match with a world-walking terror suspect. We ID’d her mother back in the day but she’s been missing for years, presumably returned to the hostiles’ time line.
AGENT O’NEILL: How did Douglas slip beneath our radar? The kid, I mean, not the mother—
DR. SCRANTON: She didn’t.
COL. SMITH: Correct. She was adopted by a childless couple in Massachusetts, eleven days after birth. Very fast. Very well-organized—her maternal grandmother took care of it. We dug the original hospital records up and it turns out her birth mother and father were medical students. She was an, uh, accident.
AGENT O’NEILL: Medical students? World-walking medical students? What is this, I don’t—
DR. SCRANTON: Listen to him.
AGENT O’NEILL: Okay.
COL. SMITH: Douglas carries the recessive trait for moving between time lines—like all of the DRAGON’S TEETH children. The world-walkers used a fertility clinic in Boston to run a rigged artificial insemination program, to breed more children who were also recessives. We figure they were going to approach some of them, as adults, to become host mothers or sperm donors … The point is, the first-generation carriers aren’t able to world-walk themselves. And that goes for Douglas. When the terrorists set up the DRAGON’S TEETH program they already knew about her, hence her name appearing on the database. But she was born years before they set that wagon rolling. Anyway, her birth mother is most definitely one of Them—Miriam Beckstein. In fact, she was one of their ringleaders. There’s an outstanding warrant for her arrest. Charges include mass murder, terrorism, crimes against humanity, violations of the Espionage Act, theft, possession of weapons of mass destruction, and treason. Oh, and narcotics trafficking.
AGENT O’NEILL: Any outstanding parking tickets? Tax evasion?
DR. SCRANTON: I didn’t see any reason to complicate things needlessly.
COL. SMITH: So we have this baby, born and adopted out long before her mother showed up on our radar. Back in the nineties, so long before 7/16. This terrorist baby is just a baby, and not her mother’s responsibility anymore. We tracked down the father and it turns out he’s on his third marriage. He’s a successful clinical oncologist in a teaching hospital in the Research Triangle. Naturalized citizen, born in Pakistan, came over with his parents when he was three. He was investigated by DHS in the wake of the Indo-Pak war, but came up clean. More recently we screened him for that same JAUNT BLUE recessive gene trait the world-walkers share, and he’s negative. Whereas the Beckstein woman was most definitely positive, an active world-walker.
AGENT O’NEILL: So you’re saying she’s an adult recessive carrier. Older than the DRAGON’S TEETH cohort, but still Generation Z? And she’s not some kind of ringer?
COL. SMITH: Yup. She’s clean. No criminal record. Two loving middle-class parents, three surviving grandparents, mixed-race adopted kid. She had a really good childhood. Not silver-spoon privileged, but she never went short of evening courses or hobbies or summer camps during vacation. Lots of Girl Scout stuff: I mean, you couldn’t make this up—she’s your all-American straight arrow. They put her through college, then got out of her way when she struck out to make a life for herself, but they’ve always been there when she needs them. She’d be totally normal if she wasn’t a carrier for the JAUNT BLUE capability.
DR. SCRANTON: And she has no background with the world-walkers.
AGENT O’NEILL: Don’t tell me this is new information.
DR. SCRANTON: Of course not. We’ve been tracking Rita Douglas since the bad old days. She was just a kid when they nuked the White House. She was on a watch list for eight years—one of my predecessors thought maybe Beckstein would come for her eventually, but it seems they’re not that kind of family. Or maybe she’s forgotten all about her college accident by now. Or thought she could protect the kid by burying her. Anyway, as a civilian and a recessive carrier, Ms. Douglas was of no use to us. Until now.
AGENT O’NEILL: What changed?
DR. SCRANTON: This is classified: the brainiacs in the lab under the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory finally figured out how to switch on the JAUNT BLUE world-walking trait in carriers. Carriers such as the DRAGON’S TEETH teenagers and our current person of interest. You’re now authenticated and listed for that particular code word. We’re going to recruit, motivate, train, and run her as an intelligence asset. A para-time spy. And that’s going to be your job.
AGENT O’NEILL: Holy crap.
DR. SCRANTON: The DRAGON’S TEETH kids are still mostly in their teens. They’re too young for the job we have in mind. It demands a certain maturity. But Rita Douglas is in her mid-twenties and fits the profile like a glove. I mean, she’s so clean it’s eerie—almost as if her family were aiming her at the political track, or a job in national security. Maybe they knew something, or guessed enough to train her to keep her head down instinctively. Either way, she’s almost the perfect candidate for this operation. Almost.
AGENT O’NEILL: You’re talking about turning her into a world-walking agent. Actually taking the war to the enemy’s time line?
DR. SCRANTON: Eventually, yes.
AGENT O’NEILL: They’re still out there? We have confirmation? You’ve got a fix on them?
COL. SMITH: You bet your ass they’re out there. As for their location … that’s a need-to-know matter. Let’s just say, we can’t just barge in and trash the joint this time. Which is why you’re being pulled into this sandbox as of now. We think Ms. Douglas is the right tool for the job. We want you to run Rita. Are you up to the challenge?
AGENT O’NEILL: That’s a big responsibility you’re putting on me, sir.
DR. SCRANTON: Don’t blame me, blame Project Oversight. But yes. They’ve got a high opinion of you after Stockholm. Question is, are you on the team?
AGENT O’NEILL: I’ll do my best, sir.
COL. SMITH: Well, now we need to get your authorizations upgraded. Lifelogger, disable code [REDACTED].
SECURITY LEVEL EXCEEDED
Copyright © 2016 by Charles Stross