After the Mission

Excerpt from the novel Infiltrator icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by S.M. Stirling icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

S.M. Stirling's "Infiltrator" book cover. [Formatted]

     Tarissa Dyson sat silent and motionless in the motel room’s uncomfortable chair and watched her children sleep. Blythe and Danny lay totally abandoned to it, like puppies collapsed after a long, hard romp, dark lashes still against soft, plump cheeks. They had wanted so desperately to stay awake for their father’s return, had fought so valiantly to keep their eyes open.
     She felt a twinge of regret for not keeping them awake. But their 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 them get some much-needed rest than for yelling at them when they were already frightened and stressed.
     She tried to steer her mind away from what had frightened them. Frightened them and terrified me, she admitted to herself. The brutal image of the Terminator peeling the flesh off the metal skeleton of its forearm flashed unbidden into her mind’s eye. That memory was like probing a broken tooth with your tongue, at once painful and irresistible.
     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, extract information from whomever it found there, and then terminate them.
     Terminate them. What a sterile way to put it.
     So Sarah Connor 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.
     Images crowded into her mind: Miles pressed against his file cabinet, terror on his face as shots destroyed the room, glass shattering and paper turned to confetti swirling around him.
     “Take Danny and go! Run! Just run!” he’d shouted.
     She’d grabbed their son and dragged him toward the front of the house. Then Miles broke from his office, running toward them. A bullet struck him; she could still see the arc of blood as he fell. Tarissa swallowed hard. Then her son had slipped from her grasp and thrown himself over his father’s prone body.
     “Don’t you hurt my daddy!” he shouted.
     She looked at her son, awed by the courage in that small package. Tarissa put 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 ensure that their son and daughter would live to have dreams of their 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 shut, whispering a brief prayer for Miles’s safe return.
     Danny started snoring 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.
     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 and Blythe. If she kept the volume down it probably wouldn’t bother them, 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 and Blythe. The little guy turned over and uttered a muffled protest, but didn’t wake up. Blythe didn’t even stir.
     What kind of jerk leaves the volume on max? Tarissa though, then answered herself: The type who things that sort of thing is funny.
     When she looked back the screen had cleared and there was Cyberdyne Corporation… on fire. There were shattered police cars everywhere and the strobing lights of dozens of ambulances. It was a disaster, a war zone. She watched bodies being carrie out on stretchers and she forgot to breathe.
     “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 and Blythe slept on.
     “Tarissa?” It was John Connor’s voice. The voice of a smart-ass ten-year-old, mature beyond his years.
     “Where’s Miles?” she asked. She heard John take a breath, and froze, screaming silently. 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 Blythe 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 needs 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. Tarissa would never forget the sight of her standing over Miles, trembling and cursing, her finger tightening on the trigger. But Sarah Connor had lived alone with this slowly approaching horror for years and had still soldiered on. She was tough all right.
     And so are you, kid, 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 microprocessor.”
     Oh my God, Tarissa thought. “No, I guess not,” she managed to say numbly.
     “Besides, the T-1000 damaged him so 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? I’m new to all this. The image of the Terminator’s flesh-stripped arm, of the intricate, exposed mechanism of it, made her squeeze her eyes 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’s 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 children. A great fire made of pain and rage and fear swelled in her chest and sobs like a series of blows racked her.
     After a few minutes the worst was over and she leaned panting against the window frame, feeling sick. 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 children that their father was never coming home?

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