Charles Stross

Halting State

In memory of Datacash Ltd. and all who sailed in her, 1997–2000.


Books do not get written in majestic isolation, and this one is no exception. Certainly it wouldn’t exist in its current form without valuable feedback from a host of readers. I’d particularly like to single out for thanks Vernor Vinge, Hugh Hancock, Greg Costikyan, Ron Avitzur, Eric Raymond, Tony Quirke, Robert Sneddon, Paul Friday, Dave Bush, Alexander Chane Austin, Larry Colen, Harry Payne, Trey Palmer, Dave Clements, Andrew Veitch, Hannu Rajaniemi, Soon Lee, and Jarrod Russell. I’d also like to thank my other test readers, too numerous to name today. Finally, thanks to the publishing folks without whom the book wouldn’t have been written: my agent, Caitlin Blasdell, my editor at Ace, Ginjer Buchanan, and my copyeditors, Bob and Sara Schwager.

PROLOGUE: We Know Where You Live, We Know Where Your Dog Goes to School

Subject: Attn Nigel—job offer

Auto-Summary: A job offer, vaguely menacing.

Spam-Weighting: 70% probable, but worth a look.

Hello. We’re Round Peg/Round Hole Recruitment. We want to offer you a job on behalf of one of our clients.

You didn’t send us a resume? Of course you didn’t—that’s our job! We know all about you, Nigel. You are an underpaid 29-year-old Maths and CS graduate from Edinburgh University. You’ve been employed by SprocketSource for one year and four months, and you’re three months overdue for a pay review. Your programming skills in Zone/Python 3000 and your expertise in distributed combat systems have generated an impressively high domain- specific reputation on WorldDEV Forums and HackSlashBurn, but does your line manager care? No. Bill does not care. He does not adequately appreciate you. And there’s a reason for this.

Here at Round Peg/Round Hole, we don’t just passively trawl a boring old database full of CVs for matches against our client’s boilerplate job descriptions. We install a Google box on their corporate network, build a Google Directed Semantic Map™ of their internal dialogue, then use our revolutionary new JobInformant™ distributed- agent technology to search the web for potential conscripts. And when we’ve found them we work out how to motivate them. Like this:

You’ve been wondering why your boss isn’t paying attention to you, and you’ve probably noticed your colleague, Sonia Grissom, putting in unusually long hours recently. She’s being a little bit distant towards you, too. And there’s a hiring freeze.

What you don’t know—because you don’t have access to our JobInformant™ distributed-agent technology—is that your lying shit of a boss is sleeping with his junior combat programmer, and he’s looking for an excuse to fire you and promote her into your shoes. Sonia is a workplace player, and you are not. You have no employment tenure because you have been in the job for less than two years, and nobody hires grunts who get themselves remaindered. You’ll be industry road-kill.

You might as well face it: You have no future with your current employer.

But there is an alternative.

You, my friend, are the exact person our client, a prestigious international gaming consultancy, has been looking for. (And if you’re not, we’ll pay you 2000 to spend a day with us helping us understand where our data analysis went wrong.)

Your obsession with reward feedback loop modulation and fractional reserve magic banking—which Bill does not understand—is music to our client’s ears. The rest of your skill portfolio is attractive, too. Our JobInformant™ SatisFactor™ package predicts a 72% probability that you will synergize effectively with their coevolutionary operations group, rising to 89% if you are allowed to indulge your preference for working from home and using an avatar for customer-facing situations. That’s cool with them, and on that basis they have authorized us to offer you a 25% pay rise, and a generous stock-option package. Not to mention the opportunity to stick it to Bill so hard he’ll be picking pieces out of his back teeth for years to come.

To claim your new job, or book your 2000 one-day head-hunting research consultancy, reply to this email…

SUE: Grand Theft Automatic

It’s a grade four, dammit. Maybe it should have been a three, but the dispatcher bumped it way down the greasy pole because it was phoned in as a one and the MOP who’d reported the offence had sounded either demented, or on drugs, or something—but definitely not one hundred per cent in touch with reality. So they’d dropped it from a three (“officers will be on scene of crime as soon as possible”) to a four (“someone will drop by to take a statement within four hours if we’ve got nothing better to do”), with a cryptic annotation (“MOP raving about Orcs and dragons. Off his meds? But MOP 2 agreed. Both off their meds?”).

But then some bright spark in the control room looked at the SOC location in CopSpace and twigged that they’d been phoning from a former nuclear bunker in Corstorphine that was flagged as a Place of Interest by someone or other in national security.

Which jangled Inspector McGregor’s bell and completely ruined your slow Thursday afternoon.

You’re four hours into your shift, decompressing from two weeks of working nights supervising clean-up after drunken fights on Lothian Road and domestics in Craiglockhart. Daylight work on the other side of the capital city comes as a big relief, bringing with it business of a different, and mostly less violent, sort. This morning you dealt with: two shoplifting call-outs, getting your team to chase up a bunch of littering offences, a couple of community liaison visits, and you’re due down the station in two hours to record your testimony for the plead-by-email hearing on a serial B#amp#E case you’ve been working on. You’re also baby-sitting Bob—probationary constable Robert Lockhart—who is ever so slightly fresh out of police college and about as probationary as a very probationary thing indeed. So it’s not like you’re not busy or anything, but at least it’s low-stress stuff for the most part.

When Mac IMs you, you’ve just spent half an hour catching up on your paperwork in the Starbucks on Corstorphine High Street, with the aid of a tall latte and a furtive ring Danish. Mary’s been nagging you about your heart ever since that stupid DNA check you both took last year (“so the wee wun kens his maws ur both gawn tae be aboot fer a whiule”), and the way she goes on, you’d think refined sugar was laced with prussic acid. But you can’t afford to be twitchy from low blood sugar if you get a call, and besides, the bloody things taste so much better when they’re not allowed. So you’re stuffing your cheeks like a demented hamster and scribbling in the air with the tip of a sticky finger when a window pops open in front of the espresso machine.


He’s using an evidence-logged CopSpace channel, which means it’s business. Blow me, you think, as you save the incident form you’re halfway through filling in and swap windows.

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