Excerpt from the novel Rising Storm by S.M. Stirling
Almost into Oregon, on the east side of Goose Lake, nestled beneath the spreading, green canopy of old-growth pines, was a small log cabin. It had one story, a stone chimney, and three rooms, one with a glass wall facing the lake as well as a state-of-the-art woodstove. It also boasted its own generator plus a slew of more esoteric gadgets. For a rustic log cabin it was amazingly twenty-first century.
Extending out into the lake nearby was a wooden pier; a small boat with an outboard motor was tied up at the far end. The pier was so low to the water that one could step aboard easily.
At the very end of the pier, seated in an aluminum chair with yellow plastic webbing, was a big man of about sixty. His gray hair was covered with a battered khaki hat decorated with fishhooks and a plastic badge that held a fishing and a hunting license. He wore tan shorts, white socks with sandals, and a neon-orange shirt decorated with bright blue hibiscus blossoms and green hummingbirds.
In one hand he held a high-end rod and reel, the butt end resting on his thigh. The other hand was curled in his lap; he appeared to be dozing. Beside him a can of beer sat atop a red-and-white cooler.
Dieter had been observing this tranquil scene for over two hours from various locations around the cabin. It appeared that there wasn’t anybody around except for him and the old man. Which made a nice change. Several times now he’d had to abort contact with someone he wanted to recruit because of a Sector presence. But if they were here they were too well hidden for him to spot. Time to make his move. He crept silently toward the pier.
The old man’s hand jerked and suddenly held a Walther P-38, old and well maintained and deadly, the 9mm eyehole looking as big as a cannon when it settled unwaveringly on Dieter’s face. His eyes moved to the tiny mirrors on the inner edge of his oversized sunglasses.
“Jesus Christ, Dieter, what took you so damned long?” he demanded. “I thought my goddamned bladder was going to explode.” He stood up and held out the rod. “Here, reel this in and come into the cabin.”
Dieter stood with his mouth open, caught flat-footed. Like some raw recruit, he thought.
“How did you know?” he asked, accepting the rod.
“Christ Almighty, you were making so much racket I thought I was being invaded by bears. Bring the beer in, too.”
Von Rossbach watched the older man trot up the path to the cabin for a moment; then shaking his head, he began to reel in the unused lure. He’d always said the boss was psychic.
When von Rossbach was a young agent assigned to Doc Holmes’s unit, he’d quickly become aware that his mentor possessed an acute situational awareness. And though Doc was well schooled in every facet of covert technology, he made it plain that he preferred his agents to rely mainly on their native faculties.
“What are you gonna do if your batteries run out?” he’d ask sarcastically. “Go home?”
Doc could be as exasperating as he was amazing. At some point whenever they got together, he left Dieter feeling like the overconfident young student in a kung fu movie who could never get the best of the master.
Dieter tucked the rod under one arm, the chair under the other, and picked up the cooler. In a way it was kind of nice to know that he still had things to learn. At least it means that I’m not the old master yet. And he’s never made me walk over rice paper without tearing it, or asked me to trust the Force.
When he entered the cabin Doc was flicking switches on what looked like an incredibly complex stereo unit.
“Siddown,” Doc invited. “Have yourself a brew.”
He continued to fiddle with the console, though no music began to play. Von Rossbach selected a beer and sat watching him, making no comment.
Finally Holmes took a seat himself and, indicating the console, spoke as though continuing an ongoing conversation, “Yeah, the Sector promised me they wouldn’t keep me under observation when I retired. They lied.” He put a finger by his nose and winked. “But I never made them any promises in return. What I just did then was erase the little bit of conversation we just had and replace it with tweeting birds and lake water lapping the pier.” He grinned. “I pity the poor schmo they’ve got listening in on me; his brain is probably turning to New Age paste.” Taking a sip of beer, he studied his former agent.
“So, what brings you here to Goose Lake? I heard you’d retired to Paraguay, of all places.”
Dieter shifted in his chair. “Paraguay is nice,” he said, a bit defensively. “A little boring sometimes, but basically very nice.”
With a snort Doc said, “So’s Goose Lake, if you like being bored out of your mind.” He wagged a finger. “You’ve been causing comment, dear boy. What’s this I hear about you and Sarah Connor?”
“How do you know about that?” von Rossbach demanded.
Doc looked smug. “Remember how I said I never made them any promises? Wellll… I found a way to keep myself updated. When you left I hear you just… left.”
“I burned out all at once,” Dieter agreed. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there. They agreed.”
“Wanna talk about it?” Doc asked.
“Nothing to talk about,” von Rossbach said. “There was nothing particular about my last mission that made it my last. It just was. Maybe I didn’t take enough time between assignments, maybe I should have taken a desk job instead of staying in the field.” He shrugged his big shoulders. “I don’t know; it was just over.”
Holmes looked at him shrewdly. “I ask again, what’s this about Sarah Connor? Not like you to side with the terrorists.”
Is that what they’re saying? Dieter thought. Of course it was, what else could they think? “Sarah Connor isn’t a terrorist,” he said aloud. His voice was flat when he said it; he didn’t expect to be believed.
Doc raised a brow at that. “She’s not? She’s bombed at least three computer companies that we know of. Okay, two of them were Cyberdyne, but that still counts as three hits. Not to mention she’s guilty of drug smuggling and arms dealing. These are things that terrorists do, buddy.”
Dieter sighed. He was about to risk something he really valued here—the continued respect of this man. “But what if she’s not crazy, Doc?” He looked up and met the other man’s eyes.
Both of Doc’s brows went up at that. He sat contemplating his former agent for a while. “Not crazy,” he said at last.
“Would you be willing to listen?” von Rossbach asked him.
Holmes pursed his lips and blew out a stream of air. He shrugged. “Sure, what the hell, I haven’t got anything else on my schedule right now.”
Dieter studied him carefully; if he didn’t buy this story, Dieter knew Doc would turn him in to the Sector in a New York minute. He ran one hand over his face, feeling desperate. Well, this is what you’re here for, he told himself.
“It’s all true,” he said simply. Dieter waived his hands. “All of it.”
For a moment Doc sat still, looking expectant. “That’s it?” he exclaimed. “That’s your explanation? ‘Cause, y’know, I’m sitting here waiting for something more. What if all I know about Sarah Connor is she likes to blow up computer companies?”
Tossing his head impatiently, von Rossbach said, “You know more about the case than that! I know you better, Doc. I worked for you for ten years. If you saw my name connected with hers in the Sector’s files, you’d look into it. I know you would.”
Doc waggled his head back and forth. “Okay, good call.” He went silent for a while, his eyes on the middle distance. “I have to admit I was very intrigued by that guy who shot up the police station, then ten years later showed up in a shopping mall.” He waved a hand at von Rossbach. “It was you! Except that at the time of both incidents, you were working for me, and in the first case, you were actually, physically, with me. So what am I supposed to think? I know you don’t have an evil identical twin. I know they say everybody has a double, but that’s bullshit.”
Dieter watched Doc as he worked it through, the older man’s fingers tapping on the arms of his chair. Doc looked up at him. “Connor says this guy was some kind of robot.” A statement that was really a question.
Dieter nodded. “I got to meet a couple of them, Doc. They looked exactly like me. I saw their insides; they’re made of metal. Rods and cams, hydraulics, a really impressive small power unit, computer controls—neural-net computers. They’re real.”
After studying Dieter for a moment, Doc said, “So it follows that the ultimate killer computer and the Judgment Day crap… all that’s real, too?”
“I hope not. That’s what Sarah has been trying to prevent all these years.” He bit his lip. “Unfortunately we’ve come to the conclusion that maybe it can’t be stopped. Maybe it’s meant to happen and there’s nothing that can be done to prevent it. The best we can do is mitigate the circumstances. Which is why I’m here.”
“Yeah, Whang said you were recruiting people.”
Doc waited him out. Dieter could feel heat creeping up his face. Only Doc could make him feel like a naive kid saying something stupid. “So I was hoping that we could rely on you to help when the time came.” There, that was it. This time he waited for Holmes to speak.
“You’re serious about this, I can see that,” Doc said at last. “I’m not gonna tell you it makes me feel good; like you’ve found a nice hobby to enliven your retirement.” He tightened his lips to thin line, then met von Rossbach’s eyes. “But I’ve trusted you before now and been right. So… I’ll take a chance and agree to help you. But!” He held up a stern finger. “I’m not going to be party to any wacko terrorist behavior. If your girlfriend feels an urge to blow up anything else, I’d advise you to talk her out of it, or I’m gone. Got it?”
“Yes,” Dieter said simply. “Thank you.”
“So what do you want from me anyway?”
“When the time comes we’ll need someplace marginally safe for people to go.” Dieter looked out at the peaceful lake. “This would make a good destination. We’ll also need your training skills.” He hesitated. “And we’ll need someplace to stockpile supplies.”
Von Rossbach was enormously relieved. The fact that Holmes had agreed so readily meant that he’d given the matter study and thought. And where Doc led, others would follow; generations of Sector agents and allies had worked with, or trained under, the old man. He was glad he’d taken the chance and approached him.
Doc nodded once or twice, then narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. “How bad do you expect this thing to get?”
“Bad,” Dieter said. “Not as bad as it would have been six years ago maybe. But bad. Billions dead. End of civilization as we know it. Possible extinction of the human race.”
Holmes nodded, his eyes on the braided rug beneath his feet, then he looked up, his eyes sharp. “I really hope she’s crazy, Dieter, if that’s an improvement on the original version.”
One corner of the Austrian’s mouth quirked in a half smile. “I wish she was.”