From Firebrand to Burnout

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

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


     Wendy brushed back her smooth dark red hair and eyed the phone lying on the table before her, willing it to ring, as she took a sip of the cooling coffee. Her eyes swept the almost empty confines of the shabby café, with its bored waitress and long-dead pastries behind filmy glass; she felt nervous, war… and a bit excited, she admitted to herself.
     Perhaps this secret watchdog group could help. Perhaps they were part of the problem and were onto her and just trying to find out what she knew before they—
     Wow, she thought sardonically, great plot line, there. Maybe I should take a course in screenwriting. Zzzzzt! Cue the black helicopter!
     Real life didn’t have a plot. It just bumbled aimlessly on its way, unless you directed it by sheer force of will. Which was harder to do than to say, she knew. She’d seen that in her father’s life. When he was her age he’d been an ardent activist, fighting against the war in Vietnam, fighting for civil rights.
     Now he ran a moderately successful insurance business, just like his dad had done. And as far as Wendy could tell, he had no idea how he’d gotten from firebrand to burnout. She saw herself at his age, complacently middle class, being careful not to rock the boat too hard.
     Did middle age bring about a failure of will, or did you just have more to lose? I guess, she thought, that you always have a lot to lose, it just seems less important when you’re young. So I guess it’s better that you’re inclined to fight the good fight when you’re young and don’t have a lot of commitments. Yeah, commitments, that’s the glue that slows you down, and when it sets, well, your life’s over, I guess.
     Wendy lifted a brow. Maybe this wasn’t the best attitude to assume when she was about to meet AM. Or anyone else for that matter.
     She tapped the cell phone on the table before her. It belonged to the house mother, a really nice woman who left it all over the place, so it wouldn’t be missed. Everyone “borrowed” it, then returned it with a cheerful “Were you looking for this?” She glanced at her watch. It was four; AM should—
     The phone rang.
     She bit her lip and stared at it. Just before the third ring she picked it up. “Yeah?” she said.
     It was a young voice; the youth of it hit her before the fact that it was also a male voice. “How old are you?” she demanded.
     There was a long-drawn-out sigh. “I get a lot of that, he said dryly. “Not as young as I sound, I know that for sure.” Damn! he thought. “Does it matter?”
     “Ye-ah! Why would I want to get involved in someone’s high-school project? Look, kid—”
     “I found you, didn’t I?” John asked, letting his voice get hard. “It took about a minute.”
     “Oh, no it didn’t,” Wendy snapped back. She’d worked very hard obscuring her trail, no way some kid could find it in less than an hour.
     “Wendy, if I’d known you were going to be so judgmental about my voice, I would have had you speak to one of my associates. If this is an issue for you I can hang up now. It’s up to you.”
     Associates, she thought. The kid has associates. Well, that was intriguing. Besides, though he sounded young he sure didn’t come across as a kid. Still…
     “Look, this was supposed to be a get-acquainted conversation,” she said at last. “So why don’t you tell me something about yourself and, uh, your organization, I guess.”
     “We’re not exactly an organization,” John explained, relaxing a little. “We don’t have a central location, for example. Our associates are spread all over the world, all over the Net—”
     “Do you have a central address where their reports can be accessed,” Wendy interrupted. “I mean I assume that you’re collecting information for a reason, which means that you interpret what you collect. Presumably you allow your contributors to assist in that.”
     “Actually…” John thought for a moment. How to put this? “Evaluating the kind of information we’re going after isn’t something a person can just walk in and do. You need training.”
     “So, train me.” Wendy tapped a fingernail on the Formica table. “That’s my price ’cause I don’t work for free, and I refuse to work blind.”
     John raised his eyebrows at that. He didn’t need a loose cannon on board. “You’re not even hired yet and you want a seat on the board,” he protested with a light laugh.
     “Look, why did you even want to talk to me if you don’t think I’m worth investing time in?” She was beginning to get annoyed. Speaking of time, this is a waste of it.
     “It was obvious that you’re very smart,” John said. “Also that you might be so bored you didn’t realize you were killing time in a very dangerous way. A lot of you computer jockeys think that what you’re doing on-line isn’t real and doesn’t count. You think you’re perfectly safe behind your keyboards and monitors, but let me tell you, Wendy, if you kick the tiger hard enough it will find you and it won’t be friendly. Those are real fanatics you were talking to.”
     He paused and ran a hand through his dark hair. “I wanted to take your intelligence and talent and direct it into a useful channel. I’d like you to be safe, lady. You’re at MIT, for God’s sake! To the Luddite movement that’s like ground zero, and you think they couldn’t find you. You’re kidding yourself.”
     Hunh, Wendy thought, the kid’s really passionate about this. She knew she was suppressing the unease his words had awakened in her. Perhaps she had been foolish. Careless? Well, unwise, maybe.
     “So what do you want from me?” she asked quietly.
     “I want you to keep your eyes and ears open and to report to us anything you find out that might be useful. Useful being defined as something that will prevent harm from being done. I really don’t care which camp is generating the damage. Are you interested?”
     Wendy thought about it. Was she interested? I dunno, this all sounds kinda weird. A kid gathering information for some undisclosed reason and passing out dire warnings? I don’t think I want to get involved. It wasn’t like she didn’t have enough to do with her time, after all.
     “Sure,” she heard herself say. Then laughed at how she’d surprised herself.
     “What?” John asked.
     “Sure, whatever,” Wendy said. “I guess I’m game. Tell me what you want and I’ll try to get it for you.” It wasn’t like she was joining the army or something.
     So John told her what he was looking for, gave her a few Internet addresses he wanted her to check into and a few general guidelines. When he was finished he hesitated.
     “What?” she said.
     “You might like to recruit some friends to help you out,” he suggested. “People you can trust.”
     Wendy sighed. “Well, I’d like to think I’m unlikely to recruit people I don’t trust.”
     John winced. “Well, you know what I mean.”
     “Yeah, I guess. See you on-line, kid.”
     He could hear the smile in her voice and pressed his lips together impatiently. This wasn’t a terribly auspicious beginning to their relationship. He’d prefer that his recruits not find him amusing.
     Hey, he reminded himself, if she knew the real story she’d run a mile. Screaming.
     “Thank you,” he said. “I’ll keep in touch.” He hung up and sighed heavily. I really need to be grown up, he thought. Too bad it wasn’t something you could arrange. I guess I could work on my voice, or maybe get some sort of synthesizer. I feel grown up, I just don’t sound it. Oh, well. For real emergencies there was always Dieter.

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