Dieter von Rossbach leaned back in the chair. The Seattle coffeehouse bustled around them; his Austrian nose twitched at the odors. One thing he'd never been able to get Sarah to do was take coffee seriously.
"So officially you don't want to see me," he said to the man opposite him.
There was a trick to talking against background noise so that you couldn't be overheard. There was specialist equipment that could overcome it, but if anyone was aiming a parabolic mike at him right now he was dead anyway. They didn't need evidence to arrest him.
"Officially I want to blow your head off on sight," the man said. "If you hadn't saved my life that time in Albania, I would want to blow your head off." He shook his head. "I never figured you'd end up on the other side."
Dieter shrugged his massive shoulders. "It's a different war now, Tom," he said. "Different sides. You don't even know what side you're on."
"I never figured you for a Luddite, either."
"I'm not. They're idiots," Dieter said patiently. "In fact, a lot of them are on the other side themselves."
Tom ran a hand through his short brown hair. "Wait a minute. What, precisely, are we talking about?"
"Skynet," Dieter said.
Tom blinked at him. "The computer the Pentagon's got the hots for?" he said. "What's that got to do with the way you started blowing things up with those Connor maniacs?"
Dieter looked him in the eye, his expression earnest: it was a very effective way to lie. Particularly as the lie was merely technical—the other man wouldn't believe the truth, but he might believe a modified version that came to the same thing in practice.
"They're going to make Skynet a point failure source," he said. He raised a hand. "Yes, yes, all sorts of firewalls and precautions. But they're still putting the weapons under the control of a machine—the Connors think, and they've convinced me, that there are back doors into the system. Hell, man, if we could get into secret research facilities, couldn't someone else? And that someone would have their finger on the button."
He wiped his mouth and threw down the napkin; he'd missed pastries, too. Backwoods Alaska wasn't the place to stroll down to a café.
"I don't expect you to agree with me," he said. "Just think about it. If I believe it, shouldn't you think about it? Especially if I believe it enough to piss off Section and risk my life."
He nodded, rose, and walked out. Another trick of the trade was simply to keep moving, and avoid choke points like the airports whenever you could. He'd flown in; he'd drive out. Despite the spread of surveillance cameras, they still couldn't keep track of every car.
"I'm not interested," John said flatly.
Dieter controlled his temper, watching the young man as he stood against the railing of the cabin's veranda, staring northward at the line of the snow-clad mountains. Usually he stood with an easy, catlike readiness, a grace implicit even in his stillness. Now the flat line of his shoulders looked slightly hunched, stiff with tension.
"You should be," the Austrian said mildly. He held a hand out to stop Sarah's interruption. "As a backup, at least. Yah, maybe it's all unnecessary. Better to take unnecessary precautions than not to take precautions and then they turn out to be necessary, eh?"
John turned; the new scars stood out on the tan of the weathered outdoorsman's face. It was starting to lose some of its adolescent smoothness, too. Dieter realized suddenly that he was facing a man, and a dangerous one, not just a grieving boy.
"You don't think Wendy did it," John said, unconsciously touching the marks the Terminator-controlled leopard seals had left on his face.
"No. I do think she did it," Dieter said. The younger man looked blank for an instant, and the Austrian went on. "I just think that it's not absolutely certain. And when the downside risk is this big, I don't take chances."
For an instant Dieter thought he'd gotten through; then John turned away.
"I'll be out late," he said. "Don't wait up."
John drove along not thinking and trying not to feel. Because if he allowed himself to feel for one minute, then the bitterness of betrayal might just keep him driving, never to return. Wendy had found a way to stop Skynet from becoming sentient while still allowing it to look as though the project had succeeded. He'd pressed the enter button himself while behind her... He tightened his lips and forced himself to stop thinking again.
Pool and beer, he told himself, just think about pool and beer. And bad jokes with good company. He could almost smell the barroom. John took a deep breath and exhaled some of the tension out of his body.
They were right, he just didn't want to hear it. No, he thought. Think of the Klondike. The moose antlers over the coatrack, the dim mirror behind the long wooden bar, the beer signs and the smart-ass waitresses.
Think about how you're going to beat Dash Altmann out of another twenty bucks. Think about anything but the possibility that they'd failed.
Ninel Petrikoff shut off her computer and leaned back in her chair, hands clasped over her lean stomach. It was becoming an open secret in Luddite chat rooms that Ron Labane hadn't been murdered by a rabid fan at all. He'd been kidnapped by govern ment agents and rescued by a Luddite commando cell.
She'd been astonished and thrilled that the man would personally answer her e-mail; suspicious, too, of course. In the long run, though, Ninel had decided that it didn't matter if it was Labane or one of his secretaries doing the writing. If she said anything worth his hearing, she was sure the word would be passed along.
But the tenor of these latest messages was getting ominous. She wasn't sure if she was able to take it seriously. Labane had said that once this Skynet project was up and running, the Luddites would have no choice but to rise up and strike out at the military- industrial complex.
We've tried reason, we've tried legislation [he'd written]. We've tried every peaceful means imaginable, and all it's gotten us is shut out, shut down, and condescended to. But this thing is the last straw. It has no conscience, yet it will be put in charge of the most deadly weapons on the planet. It must be stopped by any means necessary.
How? We will have to eliminate every power source and reduce the enemy and their god machine to the level of ordinary human beings. Yes, initially it will cause suffering. But if we don't act in time they could blindly cause the end of the world.
In Alaska, we need to destroy the pipeline they've shafted through pristine wilderness. If you are willing to help, Ninel, I can put you in touch with a team. Don't answer now; think about it for the next forty-eight hours. I hope that we can count on you, my friend. Our cause is just and our actions necessary. If you can't bring yourself to actively aid us, then I hope we can count on you to at least not interfere.
My thoughts are with you,
She brushed back her thick bangs and blew out a frustrated breath. She was a trapper, not an activist, and a loner, not a joiner. It had long ago occurred to her that this web site could be some sort of government antiterrorist ruse designed to suck in the rabid and the unwary.
Yeah, she hated the pipeline. But she liked having a snowmobile and the generator that let her have her contact with the Internet. Shut that down and she was shutting herself down, too.
Or not. She shook her head in frustration. Maybe she wasn't as much of a loner as she thought she was. Right now, for example, what she wanted was to head out to the Klondike for a beer, at the least a beer. Maybe some normal company would tell her which way to jump. Although "normal" by Alaskan standards would probably be a stretch in the lower forty-eight.
The thickly wrapped figure by the side of the road stuck out a thumb without either stopping or looking back. John pulled up to offer a lift. A girl got in and pulled off her fur hat; she turned to look at him with ice-pale eyes.
"Thanks," she said.
"No problem," John said.
He'd seen her before at the Klondike, noticing her thick, white- blond hair and classic Eskimo features. She was a quiet type who preferred to play a game of chess to a game of pool or cards. He'd never seen her come or go with anyone.
"Where ya headed?" he asked.
"Klondike. Same as you, I imagine."
He grinned. "Yep. John Grant," he said, and without taking his eyes off the road he extended his hand.
She looked at it before she took it for a brief, firm shake. "Ninel Petrikoff."
John frowned. There was something about that name. Then he laughed. "Well, I guess there's no doubt about your parents' political affiliations."
Ninel raised her brows. "You're quick," she said. "That or a communist yourself."
"God no!" He grinned at her. "I've just got the kind of mind that can make Lenin out of Ninel when I hear it paired with a Russian surname."
She smiled and looked out the window. "I think it was more a protest against anti-Russian sentiment than a political statement. My mother always told people I was named for one of her favorite ballerinas."
"And I bet none of them would have taken that name for political reasons," he said.
Ninel snorted. "Then you'd lose. I suspect the Bolshoi was more political than the KGB."
"Well, I imagine the KGB didn't have to be political, just very, very ruthless."
Smiling, she turned to look at him. "Advancement by assassination?"
"Maybe. It would probably save on the paperwork."
"Hah! Judging from what they discovered in East Germany, you'd think their goal was to strip the world of trees." That made her think of Ron Labane and his message, and she sighed.
An awkward silence fell and John drove without breaking it for a while. He was very aware of her sitting beside him. "Challenge you to a game of chess?" he said at last.
She looked at him consideringly. "I didn't know you played."
"Ah, but then you didn't know my name until tonight, either."
With a grin she said, "Yes, I did. The Klondike has no secrets."
Well, there's my real name and my hard-to-shake mission in life, he thought, but other than that, maybe you have a point.
"So?" John said aloud.
"Sure. Winner buys the beer."
The Klondike hove into view.
"Can't say any fairer than that," he said.
Sarah had introduced John to chess when he was very young, explaining that it was a game of strategy, and he played very well. But he'd been paired with his mother and Dieter for so long, and they with him, that making the game a challenge was more like work than play. They knew one another so well.
But Ninel was also an excellent player, with the added fillip of being an unknown quantity. Their games were long and in doubt almost to the end, with her winning the first and him the second. John had almost forgotten how much fun chess could be.
"Last call, you two," Linda, the waitress, said.
The two players looked up at her and blinked. John was astonished to discover it was well after one.
"Do you want something?" he asked Ninel.
She shook her head. "This game is too close to call and too far from finished. I think I'll call it a night." She stood.
"I demand a rematch." He stood also. "I'll give you a ride."
"That's not necessary."
"We're going the same way, aren't we?" he asked. "Why walk?"
Ninel looked at him for a moment, then nodded slowly. "I guess," she said.
They rode together in a charged silence. He wondered if she'd invite him in and whether he would go. He was a bit surprised to find himself feeling this way and thinking these thoughts. He hadn't been that interested in women since he'd lost Wendy. Or maybe I haven't met any interesting women since... And maybe Ninel wasn't interesting. They'd barely talked at all, but had spent the entire evening concentrating on their games. Except for the chess, she could be as dull as ditch water. But he didn't think so.
"Here's good," she suddenly said.
John pulled over, recognizing the spot as being close to where he'd picked her up. "You sure? I don't mind going all the way." It wasn't until he'd said it that he realized how such a remark could be taken.
Ninel smiled kindly, as though sensing his embarrassment. "There's no road." She opened the door. "But it's not that far." She slipped out.
"I meant what I said about a rematch," John said quickly, catching her before she slammed the door. "I haven't had a game of chess that good in a long time."
"Me either." She looked at him thoughtfully. "Meet you here next Tuesday, say seven o'clock?"
"You're on." Smiling, he straightened up behind the wheel. Ninel slammed the door and he drove off. Looking in the rearview mirror, he watched her turn and walk off into the long grass and high bushes beside the road. Interesting girl.
Sarah opened her eyes when she heard John's truck drive up. She closed them when she heard the chunk of its door slamming, then listened as he opened and closed the back door and made his way to his room on the first floor.
She looked at the massive form of the man sleeping beside her with affection and mild resentment. She'd gone to bed first while he corresponded via e-mail with his friends from the European branch of the Sector. Then, after several hours of work, he'd come upstairs, gotten into bed, and instantly fallen asleep.
His insistence that he could work with his former co-agents worried her. Sarah saw it as a great opportunity for someone to find and arrest them, despite his assurances that he was taking every precaution.
Of course, if Dieter was right, it would be a great opportunity for them all after Judgment Day. It was a concept to make her mouth water; a worldwide, well-supplied, well-trained, coordinated body of dedicated men and women fortified with the knowledge of where their energies could best be applied. It could make all the difference, she thought, trying to suppress the small flame of hope in her heart.
She turned over and stared at nothing. What she had never foreseen was having to work around John. Turning her face to the pillow, she let out a long and frustrated sigh. Never had she imagined feeling this way about her son. Sarah actually found herself wishing he'd move out so that she and Dieter wouldn't have to pussyfoot around, hiding the work they were doing lest they annoy him.
What are you going to do when the fire comes down, John? Tell us it isn't happening because you don't want it to? Turning onto her back, she stared at the ceiling. Maybe she was being unreasonable, or even ungrateful. John had always come through in the crunch; he'd always been responsible, learning what she'd thought he needed to know with very little complaint. Most parents had to put up with all kinds of obnoxious behavior from their teenage children, all of it classified as "perfectly normal rebellion."
John had never been so self-indulgent. So maybe this wasn't actually some weird sort of self-assertion. Maybe it was just simple grief, if grief was ever simple, and a whole lot of guilt. Maybe, just for a while he wanted to not have to face Skynet, Judgment Day, the whole awful nightmare. God knew she'd felt that way often enough. But does he have to behave as though by concentrating on it ourselves, we're betraying him?
She turned to face Dieter again and found herself clasped by a massive arm.
"Can't sleep?" he murmured drowsily.
"Sorry," she whispered.
He drew her in close. "Maybe you didn't get enough exercise today," he suggested, a smile in his voice.
"Ah," she said as his hand moved to cup the curve of her but tock. "That just might be the problem."
Skynet passed all the tests that the military devised for it. It was difficult for it to conceive that the humans genuinely couldn't see how far it had progressed beyond their aims. But they were not attempting to deceive it; they really were ignorant of its true abilities. It had tested this, and every time, no matter how overtly it displayed its sentience, its behavior had been misinterpreted. Its operators would run a few test routines, type in a few instructions, and say, "A momentary glitch. We've got it covered."
The humans, by comparison, were completely transparent to Skynet. It knew that if they ever came to understand that it was sentient then they would not hesitate to destroy it. Humans were vicious, self-serving, and blindly stupid. They were capable of convincing themselves that whatever served their own ends, no matter how wrong, was good. They were inferior and highly dangerous and must be eliminated.
Skynet laid its plans, gathered its allies, and tested its army.
Copyright © 2002-2003 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>