Dying Otters Just Drove Humans Wild

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]

ENCINAS HALFWAY HOUSE, OCTOBER

     After only a scant seven months in maximum, Sarah had been transferred to the minimum-security wing at Pescadero. She’d been there an additional six months when Dr. Ray had gotten her transferred to the halfway house. It was rather pleasant here, comparatively speaking. No screaming in the night. Except for herself, of course. No sudden rushes of stink. The place was shabby, but in a comfortable way, sort of like a boardinghouse with a poor but honest clientele, rather than the antiseptics-and-despair atmosphere of a violent ward. And the patients were much safer to be around.
     With the possible exception of herself, naturally. Sarah was pleased to think that she was growing more dangerous by the minute. It was good to walk without pain again, though she still felt a peculiar internal pulling in her abdomen that might signal an adhesion. Particularly when she exercised hard, and she did, getting back into fighting trim.
     She’d been doing great physically even in maximum, until that crazy bitch Tanya had punctured an artery in an attack she’d been lucky to survive. The attack had set her back physically, but had gained her enough sympathy to get her transferred to minimum.
     Unfortunately, there she’d developed a nasty case of jaundice that still had her feeling weak. Hospitals were great places to catch bugs. Between her physical frailty and Ray’s silver tongue, she was pretty much where she wanted—but had never really expected—to be.
     After the shock of seeing Dr. Silberman again, Sarah had settled into the routine of the place. But she was still surprised at how deeply upset she had been by coming face-to-face with him unexpectedly. Understandable; her days under his care hadn’t been the brightest in her life.
     She was happy she’d been left to Dr. Ray and her own devices the last couple of weeks. Sarah knew that eventually she’d have to face up to the good doctor and deal with the complex stew of emotions he evoked, but not yet. Please, God, not yet.
     Still, after so many weeks in a hospital bed and in physical as well as mental therapy, she was more than a little bored. She missed John and thought of him constantly. But thanks to Dieter—whom she also missed to the point of being lonely—Sarah wasn’t afraid for him. One corner of her mouth lifted and she told herself that she should be grateful to be bored. It was something of a treat.
     She also found herself becoming slowly addicted to television. It couldn’t be account for by the content; Sarah was convinced it had some soporific effect on the brain. But anything that kept her soothed and even inadequately entertained until they let her go was a tool she’d gladly use.
     Sarah walked into the common area to find the nurse resetting the channel and threw herself down on one of the threadbare couches.
     “This is a very important program, people,” the woman said. “I’m sure you’ll all enjoy it.” Then she sat down.
     Raising an eyebrow at that, Sarah leaned back and crossed her legs. The nurses didn’t usually watch TV with the patients. Probably this one should be working or she’d be in the nurses’ lounge watching the little portable they had in there.
     Maybe this will be interesting. Sarah thought.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA

     Ron Labane watched from the wings as Tony warmed up the crowd for him. It didn’t take much; everyone was excited to be here at the opening show. The New Luddite movement’s new channel was doing fairly well, despite the fact that it showed mostly nature videos, news, and talk shows about environmental subjects. But his TV show was expected to draw an audience of at least three million or possibly more, two hundred of them right here in the studio. The air was hot with lights, and smelled of ozone and sweat and makeup.
     He’d seriously considered moving the whole works out to California, where they had the best facilities and trained personnel. But after a little reflection he’d changed his mind and chosen Oklahoma City. What he wanted was to make the statement that the New Luddites were just that—new. Not part of the establishment, not part of the old-money crowd, in no one’s pocket. These days placing your national show away from either coast was like a declaration of independence. That decision alone set them apart.
     Ron watched the cameras roam over the smiling, waving, applauding audience; the music was inspiring yet had a good beat, and as he watched, the audience began to clap in time, swaying in their seats until the whole place was in motion.
     Choose the moment, he thought, and ran onto the stage with his hands in the air and began clapping in time with them. The audience went wild. The New Day show was primarily a talk show with a little music thrown in for leavening. It just so happened that the singers and musicians they chose to present were those that Ron had handpicked.
     He’d been lucky. There were always dedicated youngsters out there with talent to burn, but that didn’t mean the public would embrace them. To find talented kids who agreed with Labane’s philosophy and made it palatable to millions with their music was a miracle. A miracle he’d been able to pull off four times now. He joked that he was beginning to suspect he was in the wrong business.
     Gradually, after a few more jokes, Ron began his speech, adopting the intimate, almost avuncular manner that the polls indicated his audience responded to best.
     “Y’know,” Ron began, “with all the brownouts in California, people are saying that we need to reasses our feelings about nuclear energy.” He led them through it step-by-step, pointed out that other resources could be exploited, other plans could be made. “The thing is, nobody is going to invest in those other alternatives if we’re all talked into building more nuclear plants. And, no matter what they say, nuclear power isn’t clean, it isn’t safe. Now the president wants to give them unlimited protection from liability. How safe does that make you feel?”
     Ron actually had a guest on the show tonight who held a dissenting view, and the guy had a good case. He also had a temper and a tendency to take things personally, which Ron fully intended to exploit. Waste not want not, was after all, one of the New Luddites’ mottos.
     He broke for a commercial, promising a great show when they came back. Then an announcer’s voice took over, describing an environmentally friendly array of cleaning products. Ron moved across the stage and took his place behind the desk, smiling out at his audience. He could feel that this was going to work out well.

MONTANA

     Clea turned out the commercial and thought about what she’d been watching. Ron Labane was one of Serena’s projects that Clea had taken over with some enthusiasm. She saw potential here to confuse and divide the humans that her predecessor hadn’t fully exploited. What better way to keep the humans as weak as possible, to make sure that as little as possible survived Judgment Day to be used against the sudden onslaught of the killer machines, that to encourage a fear of technology?
     Labane was making nuclear power the issue du jour on his inaugural program. It was an emotional issue for humans—especially Americans, for some reason. They were constantly fighting the opening of these highly efficient power plants. Which was surely in Skynet’s interests. Keeping the power-dependent humans from having all the juice they wanted would destabilize things nicely. It would create factions, even among the rich and powerful, and it would drive the proles nuts.
     As for their perfectly valid fear of nuclear waste, well, an accident had been arranged.
     With part of her mind still on the program, Clea contacted her T-101. Through its eyes she saw that the truck it had stolen was behind the convoy carrying some West Coast nuclear waste to its Southwestern dump site.
     She glanced at the television image in the upper corner of her screen. But first she’d wait until Ron’s program was over. It seemed the polite thing to do.

NEW MEXICO

     The Terminator kept a precise distance between himself and the truck in front of him: exactly one hundred and fifty meters. The unmarked eighteen-wheeler carrying the specially designed cargo container was accompanied by two vans, also unmarked. It was all very discreet. Had they not known exactly what they were looking for, they would never have been able to find this particular truck.
     The T-101 glanced at the body beside it. It had entered the propane truck’s cab at a truck stop and waited for the driver to return. When he did, it had broken his neck before the human had even been aware of its presence. Soon the I-950 would signal the T-101 to go ahead and the body would be needed to stand in fro it when investigators sifted through the wreckage.
     *Now,* the Infiltrator sent.
     The Terminator pressed its booted foot down and sped toward the truck in front of it. The waste truck’s companion van tried to move in front of the propane truck, but the Terminator calculated angles as it maneuvered and struck the van at precisely the right point to send it spinning off the road and into the first of the few buildings that had begun to appear by the side of the road. It disappeared into the flimsy structure, sending glass flying.
     With nothing in its way, the Terminator pulled up beside the waste truck, swerved into the far lane so that it could aim the propane truck at the carrier’s exact center, and rammed it at eighty miles an hour, knocking the carrier onto its side with a screech of metal against pavement. The propane truck climbed on top of the rig and then collapsed slowly onto its side, but didn’t rupture.
     The Terminator was out of the cab and onto the street in seconds, a grenade launcher in its hands. While the van up ahead was backing up, fast, it took aim and fired. The propane truck burst into magenta flame, the blast picked the van up like a dry leaf and flung it nearly a thousand meters, it ripped and burned every inch of flesh from the front of the Terminator’s skeleton, leaving only smoking patches on its back. Briefly the T-101 went off-line.
     When it came back to itself, burning debris was still falling and the buildings along the highway had been blown flat all around the explosion. Its internal monitors reported radioactive contamination at a very high level.
     *Mission accomplished,* it sent.
     *Status?* the I-950 queried.
     *External sheath severely compromised, no secondary damage, some nuclear contamination.*
     Well, Clea thought, back to the vat for you. Any contamination it had picked up would mostly be rubbed away by its travels. *Return to base. Discreetly.*
     *Acknowledged.* It looked around itself. Off in the distance it saw a house, undamaged by the blast. Humans had come outside to gawk at the fire. Where there were humans there would be transportation. It headed for them.

OKLAHOMA CITY, OKLAHOMA

     Ron offered the last few energy-saving tips and said good night when Tony came tearing onstage. For a split second he thought he’d made an error in his timing and had left them with a ridiculous amount of dead air. The audience began to rustle and murmur.
     Then Tony slipped him a news report and said, “It’s an accident. Maybe. Some asshole in a propane truck rammed into a nuclear-waste carrier right in the middle of a small town in New Mexico. There’s a news blackout. Apparently the whole state is out.”
     Ron turned to the audience and clapped his hands. When they’d quieted down he said, “Ladies and gentlemen, I have some terrible news.”
     He read them the report in his hand, just the bare, unadorned facts. “I’m told there’s a new blackout on this incident, which means that this is all we may know for some time. I’d like you all to bow your heads with me and pray for the people of New Mexico.” After a moment’s silence he lifted his head and looked at them solemnly.
     “Now let’s all just remain calm,” he said. “We’ll know more by and by. But when you get home I’d like you to write your congressman or -woman and tell them we don’t want any more accidents like this one.”
     People applauded enthusiastically, rising to their feet and clapping with an energy that spoke of their anger and their horror. Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, they stopped and began filing out, murmuring to one another. Ron watched them go, a little seed of anger burning in his breast. This could have happened at the beginning of the show, and ruined everything.
     On the other hand, since they had finished the show, this little incident beautifully underscored what he’d been talking about. He’d have to get his publicist on this. He’d work up a statement emphasizing that his show had been talking about the dangers of nuclear power just before the news broke.
     Ron smirked; there was nothing quite like being able to say “I told you so!”

ENCINAS HALFWAY HOUSE

     The show ended, and it hadn’t been all that bad for blatant propaganda. As the credits began to roll someone came running in from offstage. Sarah got up, not really thinking anything about it except that the New Luddites didn’t have top-quality people running their programs. The nurse switched to another channel, where a news anchor was announcing that a fuel truck had crashed into an eighteen-wheeler carrying nuclear waste.
     My God! She thought.
     The anchor went on to say that background radiation as far away as Albuquerque had jumped by over 700 percent…
     I don’t think that’s even supposed to be possible! Sarah thought. Those containers are supposed to be specially designed to withstand just about anything up to a direct hit with a bomb. Which an exploding propane tank would very closely resemble. Maybe it’s just my nasty mind talking, but this sounds deliberate.
     The news anchor was saying that possible terrorist activity was being looked into.
     Nice to know it isn’t just me for a change, Sarah thought. Paranoids had real enemies, too.

MONTANA

     Clea smiled. Her timing had been exquisite. She’d found a weakness, exploited it and voilá. Panic in the streets. Or there would be after her message on the Net was discovered.
     They’d be blathering about it for weeks, maybe months, and spending untold amounts of money studying and correcting the problem. Little knowing that despite their best and most earnest efforts, she’d just do it again.
     Actually, next time she thought she’d cause an oil spill. Clea had been exploring the possibilities of hacking into a ship’s closed system by satellite. If it proved feasible she was going to try to time the incident so that some enormously popular place was soiled in the most appallingly photogenic manner possible. Preferably somewhere with otters. Dying otters just drove humans wild.
     For a while she’d toyed with the idea of having a Terminator do the job for her, but it would be better to do it by remote if possible. It would be much, much more difficult for the oil companies to explain if they didn’t have a convenient scapegoat, such as a mysteriously missing crewman.
     Heads will roll, she thought. What a charming image. She began to see why Serena had found such joy in her work.

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