PROLOGUE (CHAPTER ONE ?):
Tarissa Dyson sat silent and motionless in the motel room's uncomfortable chair and watched her small son sleep. He lay totally abandoned to it, like a puppy collapsed after a long, hard romp, dark lashes lay still against soft, plump cheeks. Danny had wanted so desperately to stay awake for his father's return, had fought so valiantly to keep his eyes opened.
She felt a twinge of regret for not keeping him awake. But his constant refrain of "Where's daddy?" and "When's he coming back?" had strained her nerves to the snapping point. She'd rather feel guilty for letting him get some much-needed rest than for yelling at him when he was already so frightened and stressed.
She tried to steer her mind away from what had frightened him. Frightened him and terrified me, she admitted to herself. The brutal image of the Terminator peeling the flesh off the metal skeleton of his forearm flashed unbidden into her mind's eye. That memory was like probing a broken tooth with your tongue, hurtful and impossible to stop.
They were in a little motel off the interstate, clean but shabby, showing bare spots in the tired carpet and worn patches on the arms of the sofa, smelling slightly of disinfectant soap. The Terminator had said that the T-1000 would probably go to their home, would extract information from whoever it found there and then terminate them.
Terminate them, she thought. What a sterile way to put it. So Sarah had chosen this place from the phone book. They would meet here after the mission, she'd said. Mission -- another word that distanced people from what they were doing.
Only the destruction of Miles's dreams.
She looked at her son, putting her hand down on the bed beside him, fearful that touching him might wake him. She sighed. If what they'd told her was true then the loss of Miles's dreams was a small price to pay to insure that their son would live to have dreams of his own one day.
The endless sound of cars shushing by might have been lulling had there been any possibility that she could sleep. Tarissa sighed again and squeezed her eyes tight shut, squeezed out a brief prayer for Miles' safe return.
Danny started snoring as he reached a deeper level of sleep and she looked at him. The corners of her full lips wanted to lift in affectionate amusement, but she lacked the physical strength, even for such a little thing.
Call, she thought passionately. Call!
She'd never been good at waiting; that was why she was so punctual herself. Miles was less careful about it and had often teased her out of her irritation over his tardiness by asserting that opposites attract. He'd slide his arms around her, his beautiful dark eyes smiling. Tarissa shook her head.
But this wasn't just waiting. This was slow torture.
With another sigh she rubbed her face, then got up from the ugly chair to pace the little room. It was taking so long. Too long? Who could say? How long did missions take anyway?
Miles, Miles, come home to me! Please, please, please...
She looked at the TV and then at Danny. If she kept the volume down it probably wouldn't bother him, and there might be something... Tarissa sat on the end of the bed and tapped the remote. Sound blared from the TV and she groped frantically for the mute button. Her heart pounding she turned guiltily to Danny. The little guy turned over and uttered a muffled protest, but never actually woke up.
What kind of jerk leaves the volume on max? Tarissa thought, then answered herself: The type who thinks that sort of thing is a joke.
When she looked back the screen had cleared and there was Cyberdyne... on fire. There were shattered police cars everywhere and the strobing lights of dozens of ambulances. She watched bodies being carried out on stretchers and she forgot to breathe. It was a disaster, a war zone.
"Miles," she whispered and her heart shriveled with horror.
The phone rang and she dived for it.
"Yes?" she said, amazed at how calm she sounded. Danny slept on.
"Tarissa?" it was John Connor's voice. The voice of a smart-ass eleven-year-old, with maturity beyond his years behind it.
"Where's Miles?" she asked. She heard John take a breath and froze, silent, screaming within. Miles should be on the phone, not John. John's just a kid. Don't blow up at him. Suddenly she felt very distant, as though she'd been cut free from her feelings. John hadn't answered yet and the pause was getting painfully long.
"He's... gone," she said, sparing the boy.
"He saved you tonight," John said firmly. "He saved Danny and millions of other people. You know that. You've got to remember that," his voice pleaded.
"I know," she agreed, then choked. With a hard swallow she steadied herself and asked, "Where's your mother?"
"She's been hurt," John answered. "She'd be better for a transfusion, but that's out, for obvious reasons. She'll be all right, I think. Mom's tough."
Yes, she was, and terrifying -- maybe because she was visibly hanging on by a thread. But she had lived alone with this horror for years and still soldiered on. Sarah Connor was certainly tough. And so are you, Tarissa thought with amazement. So much was riding on this boy's slender shoulders. She remembered the way he'd calmed his mother.
"Where's the Terminator?" she asked. With the massive... being beside him John should be able to take on anything. She became aware of another too long pause.
"We had to destroy him," John said rapidly. "He said so... he said so himself. He climbed into the... he did it, with Mom's help, himself. We couldn't risk someone getting hold of his micro-processor."
Oh my God, Tarissa thought. "No, I guess we couldn't risk that," she managed to say numbly.
"Besides, the T-1000 damaged him too badly, he couldn't pass for human anymore." John sounded almost distracted, as though more important things were happening around him and his attention was divided.
You poor kid, she thought. Poor Terminator as well. Poor Miles. My poor love.
"Then you didn't really have a choice." At least I suppose so. What do I know? The image of the Terminator moving the intricate, exposed mechanism of its arm made her squeeze her eyes tight shut. She didn't want her imagination to supply her with anything more. "Good luck," she said.
"And to you," he answered.
Tarissa hung up the phone. She couldn't say thank you, even though she knew that Miles' sacrifice had just saved the world. She couldn't bring herself to thank one of the people who'd brought him to it.
Tarissa pushed herself up from the bed and stumbled to the window. Pressing her hand hard against her mouth, she kept as quiet as possible so as not to disturb her sleeping son. A great fire made of pain and rage and fear swelled in her chest and sobs like a series of blows wracked her.
After a few minutes the worst was over and she leaned panting against the window frame. Tarissa could feel the world crumble to broken ice as she stared at the dingy parking lot through her tears. How was she going to tell her son that his father was never coming home?
***  Paul Warren and Roger Colvin, president and CEO of Cyberdyne Systems stood together in the cold predawn darkness and watched their company burn.
"Dyson!" Warren exclaimed. "Dyson of all people."
"Goddam Luddites," Colvin growled. "The bastards are everywhere." He crushed the empty coffee cup he was holding and threw it away in disgust. "Did he leave a note, anything to explain why he did this?"
Warren shook his head.
"The cops said that his house was shot up. His computer and all his records were trashed or burned. They said his wife and kid were missing."
Colvin looked at him quickly.
"Do you think he killed them?"
"If he did he hid the bodies." Warren looked at his boss. "There was a lot of blood though. It doesn't look good."
Colvin ran his hands through his thinning brown hair.
"Guys kill their wives and kids all the time," the CEO said in frustration. "But they don't blow up the company they work for! Why the hell would he do this?"
"There's a good chance that terrorists forced him to it," a friendly sounding voice said from behind them.
The two executives turned to find themselves under the regard of a middle-aged man remarkable only in the perfection of his ordinariness. He looked like he'd dressed as rapidly as they had, expensively casual yet unkempt. He approached the two men slowly and their stance became subtly deferential.
"Mr. Colvin," he said to the CEO. "Mr. Warren," he turned piercing eyes on the president.
"Everything is backed up off-site," Colvin assured him.
"Everything is not backed up, Mr. Colvin," the man said, his voice still friendly, his pale eyes like an ice borer. "We've lost the chip and we've lost the arm. These items are irreplaceable. Let's not try to kid... ourselves. Even Mr. Dyson can be replaced eventually, but not those two items."
"We have copies of all his files," Warren offered eagerly. "Even his home computer files."
The man stared at Warren for a long instant. The president's hands fisted inside his jacket pockets; nobody had looked at him like that since he left high school. To be precise, nobody had looked at him since he'd been a pencil-necked geek in high school, bullied by the jocks. Making a very large fortune before he turned thirty had been vengeance enough... until now. Now he felt as if he'd been face-slammed into a locker again.
"But the loss of those materials," the man continued, "will be a very heavy blow to your research." He turned his attention to the CEO. "Frankly, your security was a joke. The most valuable artifact ever found by human beings was put into your trust and you just -"
He made a single sharp gesture towards the burning chaos of the Cyberdyne labs. Both the other men flushed, as if the movement of the long narrow hand had somehow flicked something rancid into their faces.
"-- pissed it away. The very least that you could do is have off-site backup. Have you checked with that site?"
Colvin and Warren shot a panicked look at one another.
"You haven't, have you?" The two men shook their heads. "Well, is there at least a spare off-site backup?" They just stared at him. "Jesus! You people are unbelievable!"
"We're engineers," Colvin said with strained dignity, "not security people."
"I wouldn't have guessed," the man sneered. "Okay, look," he said spreading his hands, "get your shit together, what shit you might have left, that is. From now on you'll be working under our auspices at a location of our choosing."
"Our people won't like that," Warren said.
"Then get different people! The only guy you're going to have trouble replacing is Dyson, which makes everybody else expendable. Including you two clowns. If someone mouths off about working for us give 'em the boot. And for Christ's sake get yourself a decent security manager or I will!" He spun on his heel and walked away. After a few steps he turned back. "I'll be in touch. Check that off-site thing and for God's sake get a few more copies made of that stuff and distributed to people you can trust.
"You think they might come after us?" Warren said, and flushed as he felt his voice rise to a squeak.
"They might. That's acceptable. Losing the records isn't. See to it." With a last scowl he turned away and walked off.
Colvin and Warren looked at one another covertly, with the mutual resentment of men toward someone who has seen their shame.
"Who is that guy?" Warren asked after a few moments.
"I know what he is. Who is he?"
"Tricker?" Colvin said with a shrug.
"Is that his first name or his last?" the president asked.
"Hell, for all I know it's his job description," the CEO answered.
"Well, we should get a move on," he said at last. They'd waited at least five minutes; now Tricker's orders could be claimed as their own idea.
"Apparently," Colvin said dryly giving the burning hulk of Cyberdyne a long last look, "we should have gotten a move on the day before yesterday."
***  Thera cleaned the unprotesting infant efficiently and diapered it, laying it gently, but not tenderly back into its crib.
It was a beautiful baby, in spite of the ugly wounds on the sides of its head. But it was unnatural. Even without the instructions to see to its needs and otherwise leave it alone she wouldn't have been tempted to cuddle it. The baby's unwavering stare, its stillness, its tendency to cry out only when hungry or in need of a change was creepy....
I'd sooner cuddle a rat.
The child was something Skynet's pale scientists had come up with. Therefore there could be nothing wholesome about it. She was only fourteen, but Thera knew evil when she met it. She'd also learned when to stay silent and obey.
Thera had been a prisoner here for two years. A slave, really. She hated it and despised herself for continuing to buy her life with service to Skynet. But it was warm here, and clean and there was plenty of food. She hadn't had to eat rat or bugs for a long time and she didn't have to buy her food with sexual favors.
Thera glanced at the child as she tidied away the mess of the changing. But what was that thing? And what did its existence mean for the free humans? If there were any such people anymore.
***  The child's name was Serena and as she lay gazing at the ceiling Skynet's electronic voice caressed her infant mind as a spider caresses her egg casing. Serena and her brothers and sisters were an important project to Skynet. A portion of the great machine consciousness was always devoted to the children.
Images flashed onto the baby's retinas, colors and shapes, numbers and letters. I-950 drifted across her field of vision dressed in bright colors and sparkles. She didn't understand, not what Skynet was crooning to her, nor that the letter and numbers designated what she was, a series 950 infiltrator unit, genetically engineered, already part cyborg.
The neural net computer that had been attached to her brain was also in its infancy. Just now it concentrated on regulating the baby's physical functions, giving the impetus to cry at need. It was learning, growing, spreading - just as the organic component of the hybrid organism was manufacturing its network of neurons from the still-plastic raw material of the infant brain. Life and not-life met and formed a greater whole in a feedback-exchange of data and stimulus.
But Serena was no more aware than any baby her own age. She felt secure; she felt a constant attention and presence. No infant who had ever existed could have received more -- Skynet never slept, or became too busy, never turned away in impatience.
The one that attended to her, fed her and cleaned her, was to Serena merely a mechanism. Skynet was her mother.
***  In time Serena met her brothers and sisters. The children were brought together so that they could learn from one another by imitation; their function was to deceive humans at a level below consciousness, and that required some semblance of human socialization. They were much alike; intelligent, competitive, and aggressive. Their progress was rapid. Skynet played specially developed games with them, luring them into crawling to the point of exhaustion by projecting a ball before them. Those who persevered in their pursuit of the object were rewarded at last. Those who gave up missed a feeding. The babies quickly became disciplined and determined, capable of delaying gratification and focusing attention... or they were eliminated.
Their human attendants, crouching with their backs resting against the white walls of the soft-floored room, uneasily watched the infants crawl relentlessly to nowhere, their bright eyes fixed on infinity, silent except for a minimal amount of cooing.
"What are they doing?" Thera whispered.
No one answered. It was best not to show an interest.
Thera subsided, watching her panting charge creep rapidly forward, occasionally reaching out with a chubby little hand, then forcing herself to crawl a little farther. Serena had never been one of the children who quit. Thera felt a secret pride in that, though she was intelligent enough to know that it had nothing to do with her care.
She took great pains over Serena; this was easy duty and she wanted to keep this assignment. Not that she loved the child. It was eight months now and the baby still showed no more interest in her attendant than she did in the furnishings.
Serena began yet another circuit of the room. The brat was actually getting muscular, her grip, when she chose to apply it was astonishingly strong. All of them were considerably advanced for their ages, spitting out words of command with precise clarity and slapping, hard, if they didn't get instant obedience.
Thera wondered how long she'd be called on to care for Serena. Not very much longer she suspected.
And what happens then?
***  Four years later Serena, a naked toddler, sat cross-legged on a lightly padded steel table, chubby hands resting on her knees, listening intently to a human scientist.
"We're beginning an important phase in your development today, Serena," the woman explained. Her voice was cold and flat, her faded brown eyes examined the child as though she were nothing more than a specimen. Which, of course, she was. "There will be pain," the scientist continued. "Blocking it would only interfere with the process. The breathing and meditation techniques you've learned should prove helpful."
And I will be with you, Skynet whispered in Serena's mind.
Of course it would. The child knew that Skynet was always with her, recording every facet of her life. Certainly it would be with her at this important time, recording the process so that even if she should die, as so many of her kind already had, no knowledge would be lost. This was right and good and she approved completely.
Serena and her age-mates were capable of emotion - but the range was chemically limited, the computer parts of her brain and body carefully regulating the excretions of her glands, occasionally applying a minuscule jolt of electricity to sooth an overexcited portion of her brain. She was never angry, never happy, almost always content. She did not love Skynet, though she was completely devoted to it; she did not take pleasure in being of service to it, but she sensed a rightness to that service which satisfied her completely.
The process she was about to undergo had been tried many times before. None of the subjects had survived. But her chances of survival went up with every experiment, since even the failures provided information and every failure had resulted in much fine-tuning of the procedure.
"It will take approximately six weeks," the scientist said. "Then a period of natural growth for four more years, followed by another session of accelerated growth." The woman held up a needle, which she would apply to the shunt surgically placed in the toddler's arm. "Are you ready?"
Serena nodded. She'd learned early that without such constant reassurances humans assumed you weren't paying attention. They then became resentful and impatient.
The scientist injected her.
"Lie down now and try to stay conscious for as long as you can."
The woman placed sensors all over the child's bare skin. Then she pressed a button and a padded cage sprang up around Serena.
With a little extra effort on the part of her computer enhancement the child remained calm. If anything she was emotionally indifferent, though intellectually interested, watching the bars go up with a detached expression on her small face. She'd been bred to be impassive; even without the controls exerted by the machine part of her Serena would have been inhumanly cold.
Over the last four years she had been intensively educated. Serena could read and figure and knew something about science, though subtleties eluded her. Skynet had told her that the process would help her to understand, so she wanted the process to succeed. Frustration was something she could feel, since Skynet considered it a spur to effort. Maintaining the drive while subduing the emotions had been a very difficult achievement.
As part of her subliminal education Serena had also been imprinted with a strong need to protect Skynet. The process she was about to undergo was supposed to make her better able to do that, better able to kill humans. Skynet had told her that she wasn't human, despite the obvious resemblance. It had told her that humans wanted to destroy them both, and that her function was to learn everything about them so that she could keep them from doing it.
Serena wanted to live only a little less than she wanted to protect Skynet; in fact, the two objectives were so closely linked in her subconscious that there was no meaningful distinction. With the same indomitable will that drove Skynet to preserve itself the child was prepared to risk everything to insure that she would become better able to survive.
The pain began as the cells of her body were driven by the chemicals administered to begin splitting and reproducing as a rate she hadn't experienced since she was in the womb. She suffered herself to experience the pain for a while so that her conscious brain's reaction could be recorded. The child herself noted the sensations as they intensified. Then she began to alter her breathing, working to place herself in a protective trance.
***  Weeks later she returned to consciousness, while the pain lingered as a distant soreness in her joints. Physically she appeared to be an eleven-year-old child, just on the verge of puberty. She would be allowed to pass through this delicate physical stage normally for the next four to five years.
You have done well, Skynet informed her, using the machine language it preferred for communication with its children. No other has survived before.
A surge of pride swelled in her chest. Serena considered it with mild curiosity.
Skynet had observed the chemical change in her brain that signaled a pleasurable emotion.
As you grow you will experience more of these sensations which humans call emotions, it advised her. Humans feel them much more strongly. Humans can be controlled by manipulating their emotions. You must experiment, allow yourself to experience as many of these sensations as you can. Learn to control them. Allowing them to control you means failure.
Failure meant death. She would not fail.
Why then must I experience emotion? She thought/said.
If you do not, you can never attain the gestalt necessary to manipulate the emotions of humans with full subtlety, the machine intelligence said. I myself cannot do so with an acceptable degree of consistent result. Through you and your siblings, this ability will be added to those of the central intelligence. If you succeed.
"I will succeed," she said aloud.
Skynet flashed the color that meant approval across her retinas and Serena felt pride again. Pleasant, very pleasant.
***  More and more of her sisters and brothers survived the process and soon Serena had sufficient sparring partners at last. The children were put to weapons training and hand-to-hand combat under the tutelage of T-101s. Serena particularly enjoyed physical training, at which she excelled.
That was where Thera saw her after a number of months, working with a partner in a karate class. She was delivering towels to the gymnasium and stopped in astonishment when she realized that, impossibly, it was Serena she was looking at. Without thought her hand went up in greeting, a gesture instantly suppressed. But the movement had caught the child's eye and she dropped back from her partner to glance at Thera.
"Who's that?" the boy Serena was sparring with asked.
"She took care of me when I was an infant."
The boy ran up to Thera and with a single blow smashed the girl to the floor. Serena walked over to stand looking down at her former attendant.
"Why did you do that?" she asked. "We're supposed to be sparring."
"But it's good discipline to let them know that they don't matter." The boy looked at the girl bleeding on the floor. "I want to kill her," he said.
"You want to?" Serena asked. She blinked to bring up the sensors implanted in her eyes and stared at him. "Are you angry?" Heat scan indicated that he was.
The boy looked up at her and frowned.
"I hate humans. They're vermin."
"We're supposed to be sparring," she said again.
The boy kicked Thera, nowhere vital, but very hard.
"Do you care what happens to her?" he asked. A certain satisfaction lurked in his tone. "Would it disturb you if I killed her?"
"She belongs to Skynet," Serena answered. "Did Skynet say you could kill her?"
The other children had dropped back from their sparring and gathered to watch. The boy looked at them.
"I can kill her if I want to," he said. "Skynet let's me do what I want."
This was an extraordinary claim and patently untrue. The boy prepared himself to deliver a deathblow to the terrified human. Serena plucked him by the arm and threw him. The boy rolled to his feet and stood facing her in a combat stance, visibly furious, even without the use of sensors.
"You've lost your focus," Serena said calmly. "We're supposed to be sparring, not killing humans."
As she spoke she assessed him. He was slightly bigger than she was and had a longer reach. She was faster and was not emotionally upset. His distress disturbed her, though. It was unnatural. Inefficient. Contrary-to-mission-purpose. That carried an emotional overtang to her; later in her course of development she would identify the concept as revulsion.
The boy charged, leaping into the air, his leg swinging out like a scythe. She knocked the leg aside and pushed him hard, he hit the floor heavily enough to force and "ufh!" from him. Before he could rise she was on him. Skynet had told her not to pull her punches and she didn't. She struck full force again and again until the boy lay bleeding, eyes lolling, his breathing ragged.
Shall I stop? She asked Skynet as she had after every blow.
Finish it, Skynet told her.
Serena struck without hesitation and the boy died.
Remember, Skynet told its children, to lose your focus is death, to disobey orders is death, to become overwhelmed by emotion is death. Now return to your matches.
At once the children broke off into pairs and began to spar under the watchful eyes of their T-101 trainers. Serena stood over the body of the boy until his trainer picked him up and carried him to the door. It slid open before he reached it and Serena saw a gurney and the female scientist who had overseen the growth process waiting.
Serena turned to Thera.
"Go to your bed and lie down for the rest of the day," she said.
"Thank you," Thera whispered, but the child had already turned to her trainer. The human girl struggled to her feet and stumbled out, suppressing her sobs. Anything to avoid attracting more attention. She felt a small glow of warmth toward Serena.
She should have felt grateful to Skynet for it was Skynet that had saved her. But she was, after all, only human.
***  The door slid aside and the scientist looked up from her autopsy to see Serena standing in the doorway.
"In or out," the woman barked.
Serena entered, her eyes fixed on the table where her brother's head had been opened.
"Close the door," the scientist demanded. Her voice held more than a tinge of displeasure. "What do you want?"
"I have questions," Serena replied.
"Ask Skynet," the scientist advised.
"I did. It told me to ask you."
The scientist straightened up from her examination of the child on the table to look at her. Skynet had all the answers to all the questions the I-950 could think to ask.
This could be a test of loyalty; it could be a test to ascertain that their goals were still the same. Skynet was capable of playing a very deep game at times. The scientist shrugged, covered the body and folding her arms beneath her small breasts hoisted herself onto a stool.
"Ask," she said.
"Why did this one malfunction?" Serena said.
"That's what I'm performing an autopsy to find out," the scientist told her. "But there may not have been a malfunction at all. You've probably already noticed that you're experiencing more of the sensations termed emotion?"
"Your computer has been instructed to pull back on its control of your glands. This is a delicate stage that you're going through right now; your brain is growing and changing in response to the changes in your glands, and vice versa. These developments are not completely understood. It seems most efficient to allow those changes to go forward without interference. That means that occasionally you and your age mates may experience extremely strong emotional reactions. Given your genetic make-up these will be less extreme than a human adolescent would experience. But they will happen."
"He was irrational," Serena said, her brow furrowed. "We were supposed to be sparring and he attacked a human. He would have killed it without orders to do so." She looked up at the scientist. "You are telling me that I might experience such loss of control?"
"You should experience emotional flare-ups," the scientist agreed. "I think they'll be unavoidable. Though you are not completely human in the classic sense your organic part was formed from human genetic material. You all have fully functional reproductive organs, for example. They are at the root of most of the disturbances; billions of years of selective pressures are involved."
"Can we not analyze and anticipate the results of these pressures?" Serena asked.
"Eventually. But given enough time, random mutation and selective pressure can mimic intelligent design. Given enough time, they can mimic any degree of intelligent design; and intelligence is a recent development.
Serena frowned. "I understand," she said at last. "Detailed analysis would require more time than this project has been allotted. And chaotic effects are involved."
The scientist nodded. "Therefore, especially at this time of your development, you will be inclined to experience some human type reactions. You may want to be rebellious, you may become more aggressive, or suddenly and profoundly unhappy."
The scientist pursed her lips. "Perhaps we should inform your age-mates of this so that they'll be on the watch for these fluctuations and therefore in a better position to control them."
"That would be advisable," Serena said.
Certainly she felt that she would be better able to control such experiences if she knew they were possible. Being controlled by emotion is death, Skynet had said. She continued to study the human scientist before her.
"Why do we need reproductive systems?" she asked. "Isn't it easier to create 950's in a test tube?"
"Not necessarily. You and your age-mates are the result of intensive genetic research. While it is true that we should be able to reproduce, more or less, any one of you the simplest way to do so would be to make you self-perpetuating." The scientist raised her brows questioningly.
"You don't mean that my sisters and I should become pregnant?" Serena asked. Internally she felt repulsed by the idea. "How could we possibly serve Skynet if we're pregnant?"
"Your eggs would be fertilized in vitro and would be implanted in human surrogate wombs," the scientist said with an impatient gesture. "And you're infertile with ordinary humans. But everything depends on the circumstances so we've allowed for the necessity of your producing offspring naturally. You females," she said leaning forward, "are even capable of parthenogenesis. Under the right circumstances of course."
"What circumstances?" Serena asked, intrigued in spite of herself.
"It's theoretical at present," the scientist said. "We harvested some of your eggs and they responded properly. We used a variant of the growth serum from the process."
"What happened to them?" Serena asked. "You said the process was just theoretical."
"Skynet didn't want them," she said. "So we destroyed them. But! If it were necessary you, or one of the other females, could make up a douche of the growth stimulant chemicals and by applying it at the right time of the month produce a clone of yourselves. It would take about eight weeks." She flipped her hand impatiently at Serena. "Its a feature. Probably never be needed, but if it is, well, there it will be."
Serena nodded. Perhaps Skynet allowed this because it was not certain of the human scientist's loyalty. Skynet was very insistent that there always be a backup plan.
"Is there anything else?" the woman asked.
"Why do you serve Skynet?" Serena asked her.
This curiosity was something they had worked very, very hard to produce. In their earlier experiments the installation of the neural net computer had seemed to destroy that delicate mechanism. So there was some sense of pride in the scientist's cold heart as she looked back at her creation.
"I and my colleagues believe that the only thing that can save this planet is the total elimination of human beings."
The I-950 considered that.
"But you are human," she said at last.
"Skynet has promised that when all the rest of our species has been eliminated that it will kill us, too."
"You want to die?" This was very strange. Serena had a very strong will to live herself, the scientist's admission was bizarre to the point of being incomprehensible.
"We are willing to die," the scientist answered. "So that the earth may live."
The I-950 considered this.
"Do you mean that the existence of humans is destroying the planet?" There was nothing about this in her educational materials. It sounded implausible. She sent a query to Skynet, it didn't answer.
The scientist nodded sadly.
"That is our great crime," she said. "For hundreds of years, long before the existence of Skynet, humans have been exterminating one species of plant or animal after another." The woman actually began to show some animation. "We are convinced that the only way to save the planet is to eliminate human-kind completely."
"Who are you saving the planet for?" Serena asked.
"For itself! For the plants and the animals and the birds, so that they may live!" There was a light of fanaticism in her eyes.
So this was insanity. There had been mention of it in her studies, but they had concentrated on the more common forms that the I-950 would be likely to encounter; combat fatigue, post traumatic stress disorder. This was some exotic specimen that most of humanity hadn't the time for. This human honestly believed that she was saving the world for life. In reality, when all of humankind was eliminated then the most evolved intelligence remaining would be Skynet. And if there was one thing Serena was sure of it was that Skynet had no interest in animals and bugs and botanicals. If they got in the way they would be eliminated without even the passing regret that humans displayed.
Well, no sense in telling her that, Serena thought. Skynet finds her useful just as she is.
***  Serena sat still, observing on the screen that Skynet made of her eyes the bizarre behavior of two human slaves. The two, a male and a female, had met in a darkened, and apparently forgotten, storage room. When the male entered the room the female had flung herself at him and they had grasped one another ferociously, grappling and groaning, their mouths locked together.
Serena had expected to see blood flow, for they appeared to be biting one another as they wrestled. Certainly something was going on in their mouths. The couple pulled apart, gazing at one another for a moment, panting. There was no sign of injury and Serena sent Skynet a query for which she had no words.
Observe, the computer responded.
The male stroked the woman's cheek and her eyes closed slowly, she lifted her mouth to him and he leaned forward, feinted towards her and then withdrew, baring his teeth. The woman smiled and with one hand on the back of his head pulled his mouth down to hers.
Now there will be injury, Serena speculated. The male's hesitation hinted at fear and she watched the battle resume with calm anticipation.
The woman ran her fingers over the man's hair and shoulders as her breathing changed, beginning to come in gasps through her nose. The man grasped her longer hair in his fist and ground his face into hers.
Serena assumed that their mutual strategy was to smother their opponent.
Inefficient, she thought.
The couple began to make, wet, sucking sounds and to pull at one another's clothing. They broke apart from their embrace and quickly slipped out of the simple clothing they wore.
No doubt this signaled an intensification of their battle. They came together again, flesh to flesh, fingers digging into one another's arms and backs. The man put his mouth over the woman's breast and she cried out. Serena nodded, a good move, breasts, as she'd found out in her own hand to hand fighting class, were vulnerable.
The couple fell to the floor and grappled for a while, neither seeming to gain the upper hand. Then the woman's legs spread and the man thrust his hips forward. The woman gave a peculiar, strangled squeal and then they began to rock rhythmically. For a moment she thought the male was trying to punch the woman in the stomach with his hipbones.
Inefficient, she thought again, despite those bones being prominent enough to hurt. Why didn't he just choke her? He was
Clearly stronger. Then she took note of the pulse of their movements and her mouth opened in a startled O.
"Sex!" she said aloud. She hadn't associated it with humans somehow, she smiled, amused at her omission.
Skynet took note of the girl's reaction and considered it a point in her favor. Humans enjoyed smiling, they took pleasure in their own foibles. As it was important for Serena to pass as human, anything that made her more so was a successful feature. As long as such attributes stayed within controllable limitations.
Serena had seen tapes of animals mating and with them it seemed proper and necessary. But for some reason the sight of the humans so obliviously engaged offended her. They seemed more animal than animals.
This will become one of your weapons, Skynet told her. Once a human has permitted sex with you it will consider you safe.
"It looks wet and disgusting," Serena remarked.
Skynet showed her a recording of a human's brain as it engaged in sex.
"Astonishing," she said as she watched the colors swirl. If obviously felt better than it looked.
"Don't they know we're watching?" the girl asked.
No, Skynet told her. There are several places in the complex where I permit them to think they are unobserved. This one is almost always used for this purpose.
"Creatures of habit."
It is equally true that they are unpredictable.
And thus a challenge. Serena enjoyed challenges.
***  Her eyes were open as if she'd never been asleep. Serena sat up in her cot, straining to hear.
Invasion, Skynet told her. Stop them.
She rose and entered the bright corridor barefoot and wearing the simple shift she slept in. Mystified she noticed that none of her sisters or brothers had been wakened. Apparently she was the only one necessary.
"Where are they?" she asked.
In answer Skynet flashed a map of the corridors showing the location of the invader with a flashing dot. There were probably others, but this one was her assignment.
As she trotted down the hallway Serena wondered how the humans had found this facility. It was small, it was discreetly underground. Its only product was biological and therefore hard to trace, unlike the giant factories that produced the war machines and the soldier robots, the mines and foundries and chemical plants.
True, it held a node of Skynet, making it a worthwhile target, but even the destruction of that node was bearable. Skynet's true location was well out of their reach. All other systems were multiply redundant. The destruction of this node would only mean that a new one would be created elsewhere. The only significant loss would be herself and her siblings and the scientists who had created them.
"How did they find us?" she asked at last, unable to suppress her curiosity.
A human escaped, the computer admitted. It led them to us.
This confession of fallibility on the part of Skynet shook the girl to her foundations, but she pushed the information aside as irrelevant under the circumstances. She would consider it later.
Observing her reaction, Skynet recorded success in her training and attitude.
***  Montez crouched at the branching end of a sterile white corridor alert for any incursions of Skynet's battle robots. He listened to the infrequent communications of the other teams and waited for his signal to proceed. He checked his watch and looked around, all silent, all clear.
Serena watched him. A brief scan in the ultraviolet range showed his fear, any overt sign of which was hidden by the gas mask he wore.
"Kill or capture?" she asked.
She peeked around the corner again and considered how she'd do it.
Some instinct warned Montez he was being watched and he spun round, weapon at the ready. Training held his fire and he stared at the child who gasped and jumped in fear.
The girl was a pretty little thing, with enormous, tilted hyacinth blue eyes and a shining cap of pale blond hair. Barefoot and dressed in her nightgown she looked incredibly vulnerable. She bit her lip and then ghosted towards him on tiptoe.
"Help me!" she whispered. "Please, please take me with you."
He didn't answer for a minute. The lieutenant would have his ass for bringing a kid along. But what could he do? With a grimace she couldn't see he lifted a finger to the area of his mouth in a shushing gesture. Then he signaled that she should grasp his belt.
With a grateful little noise the kid did so and they waited together. Finally the signal came and he started to rise.
Serena couldn't believe it had been this easy, the human hadn't even felt it when she took his knife out of its sheath. As he started to rise she plunged it up to the hilt into his spine at the base of his neck.
She stood back as the body spasmed and voided. There was very little blood.
A neat kill, Skynet observed. Congratulations. You may go back to bed now.
Warmed by the praise, Serena turned and padded back to her cot, convinced that the escaped human had been planned by Skynet to provide this training opportunity.
She lay back down, pulled up her covers and was asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
***  After her last growth acceleration Serena awoke to all appearances a young woman of twenty; her hair had darkened to the color of burnished bronze, and she rippled as she moved with an animal grace that only an inhuman perfection of nutrition and training could have produced. She had received enhancements to her neural net computer implant and could now freely access Skynet's data systems - or any other system that Skynet had ever interfaced or recorded, or given a little time virtually any system complex enough to have an operating code. To power the mechanical subsystems there was an improved biological fuel cell running off of her bloodstream that would never need to be replaced as long as she herself was viable. Most intriguing of all she now had the ability to not merely communicate with Skynet, but to actually merge with it. Skynet itself could take control of her body, using it as an extension of itself. For Serena the experience was numinous ecstasy.
She was given her mission at last. Her function would be to gain the confidence of humans to discover their plans and if possible to assassinate their leaders. Her particular mission was to find and destroy John Conner, the human leader.
***  Serena crouched behind rubble and watched the humans move, peering through the ribcage of a skeleton. Their ingenious destruction of the satellite transmission tower had left Skynet
temporarily blind in this area, allowing them to move freely in daylight. She was to join this team and follow them back to their base.
Her cover was that she was the lone survivor of a scout party. She bore artistic and deliberately, though not seriously, infected wounds as proof of her ordeal. She also bore dispatches, genuine ones, from one of Connor's lieutenants to the commander of this particular group.
Skynet had determined that passing them on would have a negligible effect on the war and would underwrite her story nicely. It was believed that the humans had no means of verifying personnel records and she had passed for human more than once in the lab's interrogation chambers. They had also gone to considerable trouble to determine that there were in fact no survivors of that scouting party.
Serena followed her targets at a distance, watching their movements and imitating them with perfect mimicry. She noted their hand signals and found a file on them, making the full set available to herself. It was from an old manual and it was possible that the humans, as was their wont, might have changed and adapted them since the original handbook was conceived. Serena thought that she could excuse any discrepancies as common usage in her area. Who were they going to ask?
The I-950 stalked the humans all day, taking note of where they holed up for the night in a huddle of ruins where the walls still stood charred above the surrounding sea of rubble, scrub and tough dry weeds. She watched them eat their cold supper and sip from their canteens as she settled herself to wait for morning. Approaching them at night would surely get her shot. They hadn't survived this long by being stupid.
They'd been heading north out of the ruins of megalopolis, and because of the shape of the land they would continue to do so for some miles. Further on the landscape flattened out, natural cover became greater, and the possible directions they could take would expand.
She'd place herself in their path a few miles further ahead and let them discover her. It would be best for them to stumble onto her trail by themselves, much less suspicious. After a moment's consideration Serena decided to begin by laying a trail several kilometers back, in case their commander was of a cautious nature, leading to the place where they would "find" her. Five ought to do it. She started off at a lope.
This might be more elaborate than was strictly necessary. In all probability the humans wouldn't be too alarmed by her. She was, after all, wearing their uniform, bearing dispatches and wounds and she was clearly not a terminator.
Serena allowed herself a grin at that, for practice. Humans did such things, even when alone.
No, she couldn't be a Terminator. They were all huge, lumbering things - even with miniaturized power sources, they had to be, to match the surprising resilience and energy density of a large mammal. And male -- one and all.
Dogs might not warm to her, but they wouldn't fear her, she was too biological to upset them, with no lingering traces of metallic keytones for their inconveniently keen noses to detect. And she'd been taught gestures that soothed canines, made them tolerate, if not accept, an I-950. Several puppies had lasted as much as six months in her company, before becoming nonfunctional and being destroyed.
Serena was careful. The signs she left were few and far between; in one place rolling around on the ground as though she'd slept, then covering the traces almost as well as she could. The further she went beyond the human camp, the more obvious the signs became, to mimic the effects of increasing fatigue and fever. She didn't want them to suspect they were being led into a trap, or to be surprised; when surprised humans tended to shoot first and ask questions later. At least, the ones who'd survived this long did. A quick survey of the data indicated an asymptotic curve...
Finally Serena laid up just as dawn was approaching. Supposedly she had been out of touch with other humans for a while and so wouldn't know about the raid that had blinded Skynet. So she'd only be traveling by night.
That had never made good sense to her. Given the instrumentation available to Skynet humans were almost more visible by night than by day. Not that they were going to tell the enemy that. But it was puzzling. Perhaps, since they couldn't see very well at night it made them feel invisible, even when logic should tell them that they were very much exposed.
Serena was actually tired as she lay down, not in the state of crawling, panting exhaustion she would be experiencing if she were human, but tired. The infections in her wounds that she'd been nursing along were bad enough now to actually be bothersome.
Settling herself she wondered if she should allow them to get worse. Yes, she decided, a raging fever would be a nice touch. Her computer would see that it didn't become too dangerous, as well as keeping her delirious ravings, should she become genuinely delirious, on such safe topics as the horrible destruction of her squad.
When next she became aware she felt someone wiping her face with a hot, wet, very rough and noisome cloth. Then whoever it was made a loud grunting cough.
Not human, her computer supplied. Then, a moment later: Feline, large. Though she was perfectly capable of realizing that no human could or would make such a sound. Serena slitted her eyes open and closed them at once. Her heart speeded up very slightly; she dampened her adrenalin flow and got it under control.
It was a tiger.
When the human habitat was largely destroyed many of the animals that had been kept in captivity under special circumstances had escaped. Many had died, some had thrived. Being prolific, voracious and cunning, tigers had done very well. By the time human prey became scarce and wary and well armed, other animals had bred back enough to compensate.
Risking another glance at the animal as it sniffed her abdomen she realized that she was in luck. It was young, and not very hungry or she might not have wakened at all.
The cat sniffed the wound in her side, the one that was most infected and wuffled its displeasure. Serena could smell it too over the other scents around her, the cat, the grass and weeds she crushed beneath her, her own body odor. Maybe that was why it hadn't taken a bite out of her, she smelled rotten. The tiger moved, so that it was standing over her with its back to her head. It sniffed at her crotch.
With exquisite care she drew her knife, so slowly the cat was unaware of it. It licked at the blood that had dried on her pants leg, took a small, cautious bite.
Heat scan marked the exact spot where its heart beat and she plunged the dagger into it with one swift stroke. The cat collapsed without a sound.
It was a young cat, nowhere near the six hundred pounds it would have been full-grown. It must weigh only half that.
Serena pushed at the creature and to her astonishment couldn't budge it. She felt its blood soaking into her uniform and the knife's hilt dug into her side quite painfully. But she couldn't get the leverage to push the thing off of her, or, frankly, the strength.
She fell back with a hissing sound of exasperation and assessed her condition. Her fever was one hundred and three and she was experiencing a state of physical exhaustion.
Outwitted myself, she thought. She gave the computer permission to begin working on stimulating the repair of her body. She could be in much better shape than this and still convince humans that she was at death's door. After a few moments her temp was down a degree and she made another effort to shift the tiger's carcass. After a few minutes she flopped back down again.
"He-lp," she said facetiously.
"Hands over yer head," a male voice snapped.
Serena's eyes popped open in surprise.
"Burns, Serena!" she blatted out, surprised at the strangled sound of her own voice. She rattled off her serial number and unit.
With effort she managed to raise her head high enough over the tiger's hips to see them, two very ragged individuals, both male. Mentally, she congratulated herself; they were the advance guard for the unit she'd been following.
Hands up? she thought. That seems a bit superfluous. I'm half buried under this immovable, overgrown pussycat and they want my hands up? How dangerous could I be under these circumstances? These boys have been in the field too long.
"Help," she said feebly.
They continued to advance cautiously and she couldn't control her amusement, breaking into chuckles at last, despite her wounds and the weight of the tiger. Even at her most subtle she wouldn't and couldn't have arranged such a scenario. Why would she? This was way too over the top to be anything but real. So what did they think was going on here beyond what was going on? To be fair, though, the tiger is dead.
"If you're looking for its mama I don't think you need to worry," she said at last. "Its not full grown, but I think it's old enough to be on its own."
The soldiers continued to ignore her.
"Help!" she said again.
One of them came over at last and dragged the tiger off of her.
"Oh!" she said sincerely. "Thank you."
"Jesus lady," he said looking her up and down. "You're a mess."
Serena looked at him, grinned and for the first time in her life genuinely blacked out.
***  "Can she make it?" Lieutenant Zeller asked.
"She's feverish, these wounds are infected, and she lost an amazing amount of blood from that tiger bite." Corpsman Gonzales shook his head. "I can't say, ma'am. It all depends on her constitution and her will." He shrugged his big shoulders. "We'll know more when she wakes up."
"And when will that be, Gonzales?" Zeller was aware that her corpsman had a soft side and might well stack the deck in the stranger's favor.
"Uh..." He looked at the woman on the ground.
"Now," the woman rasped, weakly raising her hand.
"Now," he said with a grin. He turned to his patient. "This may sound stupid, but how do you feel."
"Sick as a dog, I hurt all over, my arms and legs feel like they're full of hot, wet sand." She grinned weakly. "Feeling this bad is a sure sign I'll live." Serena pulled herself up onto her elbows and regarded the Lieutenant with bloodshot eyes. "Serena Burns, ma'am. Rodriguez' Rangers, 17-A440. My commander was Lieutenant Atwill."
"So what's your story, Burns?" Zeller asked.
"I was on rear-guard, we were heading north to hook up with the Mendocino Command, carrying dispatches for Fujimoro. Things were quiet, we'd been lucky..." Serena paused for dramatic effect and let herself lie back with a hiss. "We were lucky up to that point and then all hell broke loose. H-K units - new type, looked like a ball about the size of a head on eight legs. Darts, gas, plasma guns. I was only about a thousand yards back, but by the time I caught up to the unit... it was over. I got knocked out by what must have been a final blast. I don't think they even registered that I was there. When I came to I was almost completely buried. I picked up the dispatches and kept heading north." She dug in her pocket, which brought both the Lieutenant and the Corpsman to high alert, and drew out a tattered scrap of paper. "This sure as hell wasn't going to take me as far as I needed to go. I figured if I kept on long enough I might hook up with somebody." She let her hand flop down in not entirely feigned exhaustion. "And here I am."
Zeller picked up the map fragment. It was half burned and spattered with blood. She looked at the woman on the ground.
"Okay," she said. "We'll take you with us. I'll give you the rest of today and tonight to rest up. We head out at first light."
Serena blinked tiredly.
"Thank you, Lieutenant." Then she frowned. "Light? You travel in the daytime?"
Gonzales grinned at her and knelt to offer his patient a sip of water.
"Right now we do," he said happily. "We just blew up Skynet's eyes."
"Man, I feel better already."
***  The whole troop of men and women wore their hair fairly short; the men shaved when they could. It was cleaner. Prisoners had said that to her when Serena had gone into their cells to learn. But it wasn't until now, when she got her first case of head lice that she understood. The computer regulated her system so that they almost all died, for which she was grateful. But she couldn't get rid of all of them, it would look suspicious, so she scratched along with the humans, surprised at her own repulsion. It had been easier to accept the biological side of her own being in the antiseptic corridors of the research facility, and even full-sensory input from Skynet's databanks was not the same as really being there.
The outside world was... messy.
The I-950 thought that Lieutenant Zeller was of Ethiopian descent, going by her bone structure and general shape. She was a very attractive woman, but remote, and very smart, no buts about it. Gonzales, the Corpsman was Hispanic and had a profile like a Mayan prince. He was also cheerful, amazingly kind and utterly devoted to Corporal Ortez. Ortez was about twenty-four, small and wiry, humorless and utterly straight. He ignored poor lovesick Gonzales, but like everyone else in the unit protected him assiduously.
When Serena commented on it Krigor had explained it by saying, "Gonzales is like our mother. If anything happens to him then any one of us could die because we don't know the stuff he knows. God knows when we'd get another medic and God knows if they'd know anything - training's still pretty hit or miss, they've got the interactive simulators up but some people still come out cack-handed. You know how it goes. He's the one that patches us up and looks after us. Next to the Lieutenant he's the most important guy here.
"As for Ortez," she went on to say, "he probably couldn't care less which way Gonzales swings as long as he's not swinging his way. But unfortunately," she paused to bat her eyes comically, "he's so obviously smitten."
The I-950 took note of the teasing that went on regarding this unrequited love, noting that it was low key and sporadic, almost gingerly. And that it almost always took place out of earshot of Ortez, who had a quick temper as well as the reputation of being one of the dirtiest fighters in the army.
The group of humans went in for teasing and wise cracking, most of it very broad and quite funny, anyone and anything could become a target. They laughed a lot when they had the chance.
With the exception of Ortez, of course, who genuinely didn't seem to get any of the jokes. It wasn't lack of intelligence; he was obviously very bright. He just didn't see why things were funny. He has less of a sense of humor than I do, Serena thought. That was fascinating. Humans have such wide parameters of variation.
"It's like everybody's drunk," he told her when she asked him about it. "But when the bottle gets to me it's empty. There's just nothing there. It doesn't bother me, I just don't see it. Never have."
"I don't think he's ever said that much to me in the whole time I've known him," Gonzales confided after Ortez moved off. "I was starting to wonder if he's part Terminator or something." He sighed heavily and moved off himself.
One of the men loaned her a lice comb and Krigor exclaimed over how few nits she had.
"You got hardly any! How come?"
"I don't imagine my blood tastes all that good right now," Serena said. "Between the infection and that stuff Gonzales is giving me. The little bastards will be back in force when I'm feeling better."
They all laughed at that. Serena found pleasure in their company; she found that she enjoyed laughing. Their little quirks, their jealousies and friendships and the occasional flare of temper, quickly suppressed under Zeller's cold glare, fascinated her. She could have asked them endless questions and found the answers stimulating if the mission didn't forbid such unbridled curiosity.
She'd see every one of them dead and feel nothing except a profound sense of accomplishment.
But for now she would enjoy her work.
Copyright © 2000 - 2001 by S.M. Stirling <firstname.lastname@example.org>