Being Right Doesn’t Help Much When You’re Right About Something this Weird

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]


     John slipped into the auditorium/classroom quietly and sat down in the last row at the back. Very nearly every seat was filled for this class and he swept the rows with his gaze, looking for Wendy. He thought he saw her in the center of the middle row. Just a sense he had, since he’d never seen her in the flesh, let alone from the back. He settled in to listen. You never knew what knowledge might come in handy.
     Too soon the class was over, leaving John hungry for more. Some of it had been a bit esoteric, but what he had gotten was presented in such an interesting way that he envied the students. Good teachers definitely made a world of difference; it was just more fun than doing everything on your own or on the Net.
     The girl in the middle row was Wendy. She turned and began to slip out behind the other students, a thoughtful expression on her even features. The others all seemed to be chattering to one another in couples and groups, while she walked slowly and alone toward him.
     John felt a nervous electricity in his middle as he looked at her. Slender and graceful, she moved like a dreamer through the stream of students. He stood up as she drew near and fell in directly behind her, waiting until they were outside to speak.
     “Watcher,” he said.
     She spun on her heel, her eyes wide and her head at a stiff, almost challenging angel. “Who the hell are you?” she snapped, a slight frown marring her smooth brow.
     He smiled slowly. “You don’t recognize my voice?”
     She looked him over, dark eyes assessing. “You’re younger than you look, even with that beard.” Taking a step closer, she narrowed her eyes. “A fake beard?” She raised a hand and backed off a step. “I don’t know you.”
     “Sure you do,” he said, grinning. “You’ve just never met me.”
     “Yeah, right. Ciao, kid.” She started to walk away.
     Rolling his eyes, John fell into step beside her. “You know me as AM, we’ve spoken on the phone. You’ve done a little Web surfing for me.”
     Wendy stopped short and studied him again. “So what are you doing here?” she asked suspiciously.
     With a shrug he said, “I felt it was time I met you and your team in person. I have some information I’d like to share with you and an artifact to show you, and that couldn’t be done by phone or via the Net.” His lips quirked up at the corners. “So I’m here.”
     She looked at him for a long time. “Hmmm!” she said, and started off again. John watched her walk away, then jogged to catch up with her, walking silently by her side as she thought. Lifting her head suddenly, as though just waking up, she glanced around.
     “Um. that was my last class,” she said, giving him a sidelong glance. “Look, don’t take this the wrong way, but I’m not about to introduce you to my ‘team’ as you call them until I know a little bit more about you. So, why don’t we go have coffee at the student union?”
     “Sure. So how’s the coffee at the student union?”
     “Compared to what?” she growled.
     He looked at her wide-eyed. Wow, she’s a fierce little thing.
     “Uh, compared to the tea?”
     A slight smile touched her lips. “They’re both pretty bad, to be honest. Maybe we should stick to soda.”
     “Do you drink Jolt?” he asked.
     “No! I know all us geeks are supposed to thrive on the stuff, but I do not.” She pushed open a door and led him into a place teeming with students.
     “Uh”—he touched her arm, then removed his hand when she glared at it—“it’s a little crowded in here for the kind of conversation I had in mind.”
     Wendy raised a skeptical brow. “Nobody here knows you,” she pointed out. “I don’t know you. Which means there’s no reason to think anybody is going to eavesdrop.” She shrugged. “Sometimes the most private place you can find is in a crowd.”
     “Yo! Wen-dy!” a large, bearded student bellowed. She grinned and waved.
     “And sometimes not,” John said quietly.
     “Meeting tonight at eight in Snog’s room,” the beard said, leaning close. He grinned at John and moved on.
     Wendy gave John a look and went over to a machine, getting herself a diet drink. John pushed a dollar into the machine and got a Coke, then followed her to an empty table wondering if he should have bought hers. Probably not; buying her a drink might have some significance in the U.S. that a guy who went to an all-male school in South America was unaware of.
     Wendy shrugged off her knapsack and sat down, then took a sip of her drink. John divested himself of his own and sat across from her wondering how to begin. He’d rehearsed things to say, naturally, but felt that he’d somehow gotten off on the wrong foot here. Clearly their Internet acquaintance and one phone call didn’t mean that they knew each other as far as she was concerned.
     I should have let her know I was coming, he thought. Of course then she could have said don’t come and probably would have. And he would have come anyway, in which case she’d be even more hostile than she presently was. Still, showing up unexpectedly and in disguise… He winced inwardly. He’d actually forgotten about it. That’s the kind of thing stalkers do, I guess. The last thing he wanted to do was make her think he was crazy. Oh, c’mon, John, she’s gonna think you’re crazy anyway. Just a different kind of crazy.
     “Well!” she snapped. “You wanted to talk? Presumably during my lifetime?”
     He cupped his chin on his hand and said, “There’s no need to get snippy.”
     “Well, what do you expect when you show up like this? In a fake beard no less! I’ve gotta tell you”—she gave her head a little shake—“I’m really not feeling very good about this.” She flicked a hand at him. “Not good at all.”
     John allowed himself to show some temper. “Well, Wendy, I find it interesting that you’re perfectly comfortable invading the privacy of people you don’t know at the behest of someone else you don’t know for reasons that you don’t know. But when I attempt to meet you face-to-face to explain it all, you give me this rather obnoxious attitude that screams ‘hey, my space is being invaded.'”
     Her mouth dropped open and she straightened in her seat. Then she let out a little bark of a laugh and opened her mouth to speak.
     Before she could get out a word John said, “Has it ever occurred to you that, nevermind that it’s unethical, what you’re doing might be dangerous, or illegal?”
     “No,” she said instantly. “I’m not that clumsy and I’m not doing anything but looking. Information should be free.”
     It was John’s turn to stare. God! She’s so innocent! What must it be like to feel so invincible. He had at one time, but that was before the T-1000 and he couldn’t remember what it had been like.
     “Well, ideally we all should be free, and well fed and have a comfortable, safe place to sleep at night. But I don’t think that’s the way things are. Do you?”
     She gave a “hunh!” and glared at him.
     “Don’t let your pride get in the way of your considerable intelligence,” he said. “You know you never should have gotten involved in this without checking into it further, don’t you?”
     With a shrug she said, “I checked you out. As far as I could. Your Web address belongs to a guy named Dieter von Rossbach and he isn’t you. But why you’re using his computer, I couldn’t find out. I also couldn’t find any reference to an AM anywhere. Which indicates that it’s a new name. So, either you’ve never done anything like this yourself, or you’ve screwed it up so badly that you needed a new handle.”
     He considered her answer. Not bad for what was mostly guesswork. He scrubbed his face with his hands, being careful not to dislodge his facial hair, and looked at her.
     “Well?” she asked, one eyebrow raised.
     “It is a new name. Spur-of-the-moment thing,” he admitted. “I’ve done research on the Net before and I’ve lurked around a bit. But this sort of thing, getting other people involved…” He turned down the corners of his mouth and shook his head. “Yeah. This is new.”
     Wendy huffed a little and leaned back in her chair, studying him. He was young, probably younger than she was, but he felt older, and she instinctively knew she could trust him. Maybe she was being snippy.
     “So what’s this about?” she asked. “I guess you didn’t come all the way from South America because you thought I was cute or something.”
     “Sure I did,” he said, grinning. Then held up his hand to ward off her response. “Well, maybe it helped. I came up here because it would be irresponsible to let you keep doing this research without having some idea of why and what you’re doing. I am not lying when I tell you it could be dangerous. Now I’m not talking gun battles on the quad here.” At least I hope like hell I’m not. “Maybe a better word would be risk.
     “Risk?” she said. Wendy took a sip of her soda, watching him.
     “Yeah. You’re taking a risk on your future here. Which is why I believe you need more information.”
     Biting her lips, she nodded slowly, meeting his dark-eyed gaze. He had a point. The powers that be might, at the very least, think that what she’d been doing was unethical, if not uncommon. And that could impact her career path.
     “All right,” she said. “Enlighten me.”
     Okay, here goes. “What you’ve been working on is an attempt to locate a very dangerous military AI project.”
     After a moment’s pause she asked, “A U.S. government project?”
     “Ye-ah.” Who else? he wondered.
     “Because, you’re from Paraguay, aren’t you?”
     “I’m from the U.S., I live in Paraguay,” he said impatiently. “What’s your point?”
     “I dunno. I guess”—she shrugged—“I wondered why you’d be interested.”
     People are right, John thought, Americans are self-centered. If you’re not from here what do you care what we do? Naive and unconsciously arrogant, to say the least.
     “My interest is in stopping this project, at the very least slowing it down.”
     Suddenly mindful of where their acquaintance had begun, Wendy asked suspiciously, “Are you some kind of Luddite?”
     “Now you ask me?” John favored her with an exasperated look. “no, I’m not a Luddite. I’m willing to admit that they have a few good ideas, but by and large I don’t think their ideology is applicable to real life. And I don’t like terrorists; they’re all self-centered, mean-spirited nutcakes, if you ask me. Me, I just have this one lousy project that needs to be stopped. I have my reasons, which I’ll explain to you someplace less public. But I’m not here to hurt you, Wendy, far from it.”
     Wendy considered that. “Have you read Labane’s book?” she asked.
     John shook his head. “I haven’t had time.”
     “So you really can’t say whether their ideology is, in fact, applicable.” She crossed her arms and watched him for his reaction.
     John was a bit confused. Suddenly she wanted to play debating team? To him the question and its follow-up had come out of left field. Maybe it’s like a time-out, he thought. She’s trying to get some space to think about me being here so she’s distracting me with this nonsense.
     “You know what?” he said. “You’re right. I can’t speak to the Luddite ideology with any authority because I haven’t made a minute study of their position. I think they bear watching, but frankly”–he flattened his hand on his chest—“I’m not that interested. I have this one thing I have to do and it takes all my time and concentration. I’m hoping that once you’ve heard what I have to say, you and your friends will want to continue helping me. And if you don’t I’m trusting you to keep quiet about it. Everything else is irrelevant to me. Okay?”
     She kind of lifted her head and pursed her lips. “Sure, whatever.” Wendy took another sip of her drink, annoyed and slightly embarrassed. “So. Have you got a place to stay?”
     “Uh, actually I was kind of hoping you might have a suggestion about that.”
     She gave him a cool, level look that went on long enough to see that he understood he wasn’t staying with her.
     “A motel, a bed-and-breakfast maybe?” he quickly suggested.
     “Hotels in Boston and Cambridge, if you can find one with a room, tend to be expensive, and B-and-Bs are even more so. I’ll see if I can find someone to put you up in their room.” She took up her backpack. “You can eat here if you like.” She shrugged. “It’s not very good, but it is cheap. Or there are restaurants all around the campus that have reasonable prices and fairly good food.”
     John stood up to follow her, but she held up her hand.
     “I’m going to talk to my friends about you and I don’t think you should be there. Be back here by seven-thirty and I’ll bring you to the meeting.” She started off, then said “bye” over her shoulder with a vague sort of wave.
     John was left standing there, feeling a little foolish, and a lot uncertain about how this was going to work out. He wanted Wendy to like him and he’d really come on strong, which he could tell she didn’t like. Wait till she found out what he was talking about. He blew out his breath.
     No wonder Mom flipped out for a while, he thought. Being right doesn’t help much when you’re right about something this weird.
     He slipped on his backpack and looked around the busy room. He sure hoped Dieter was having a better time than he was.
     I’m beginning to look forward to meeting with those arms dealers. A sure sign that things weren’t going all that well here.

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