Like an Avenging Angel

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]


     If anyone had been able to see through the van’s darkened windows, they would have seen a pair of tall, grim-faced twins, a short, dark, balding muscleman, and a child of angelic beauty. Alissa’s golden hair curled to the center of her back and she looked adorable in a little blue sundress and white sandals. She carried an adult’s white purse that was almost as big as she was.
     The purse contained all of their identity papers, driver’s licenses for each of the Terminators, the deed on their new house, the van’s registration, and several thousand dollars in cash, all that Clea thought they would need to get them safely to their new location in Utah.
     The older Infiltrator didn’t know that Alissa had gathered all of this material in one place, and would have disapproved if she had known. But to Alissa it felt right, and since she didn’t really trust her older sibling, she went with her feelings.
     Alissa was looking forward to getting settled in. She was long overdue for her next growth enhancement and the sense of being off schedule tormented her. Once in a while, to distract herself, she checked her sister’s computer to view whatever Clea was looking at. She wasn’t interested in communication so much as she wished she was in a more interesting place than the endless expanse of rolling sagebrush outside. New York was enormous, filled with buildings of staggering size and teeming with life, at once fascinating and revolting.
     For the most part, like the Terminators, she ignored the often spectacular scenery they were traveling through. Occasionally she would take note of a suitable spot for an ambush, or places for the automated factories.
     But for the most part this land was empty and, as far as she could see, always would be. She flicked her inner vision back to the busy New York streets. That was where the war would take place. There, along the Mississippi, and on the West Coast. Soon, she hoped. For now, this empty land was a good place to begin laying plans and manufacturing allies.
     “I’m hungry,” she said eventually. “Pull in to the next available place.”
     The Terminators didn’t acknowledge her order; there was no need. Even voicing it aloud was mainly a matter of training herself in humanizing her mannerisms.
     They did have supplies on the van, but she was bored and wished to begin socializing both herself and the Terminators to the degree that any of them was capable. You really couldn’t terminate humans effectively if they had warning.


     The restaurant was clean, with a black-and-white tile floor and chipped Formica surfaces; it smelled of cooking but of no particular food or spice unless it was hot oil. The four of them took a booth where rips in the plastic cover had been carefully patched with duct tape, and a waitress in a pink uniform and comfortable-looking shoes came over with plastic-coated menus. The menus were slightly sticky to the touch.
     “Blue-plate special’s chicken-fried steak,” she announced to the puzzled machines and Infiltrator.
     “Chicken… fried… steak?” Alissa asked. She had a ridiculous mental image of a fowl flipping meat onto a grill.
     The waitress grinned. “You never had that, honey?” she asked. “You dip the steak in the same kinda coating you use for chicken, then you fry it.”
     “Interesting,” the Infiltrator said. It didn’t sound very healthy. “We will have that,” she said, handing the menu back to the woman.
     The waitress raised her brows and looked at the Terminators. In her experience, big, tough-looking men usually didn’t take orders from little blond moppets.
     “You boys okay with that?” she asked doubtfully. They handed back the menus and just looked at her. “How would you like those steaks cooked?”
     Alissa blinked as she considered this. It felt like a trick question. “Until they’re done,” she said after a moment.
     The waitress looked at her, a look that said, “Don’t give me any more nonsense, kid.” “Rare, medium, or well-done?” she asked tersely.
     “Ah, medium,” Alissa said. That sounded like a safe choice.
     “To drink?” The waitress’s voice hardened slightly under their unwavering gazes.
     “Just water,” Alissa said. If the dinner was unhealthy she need not compound the error with fluids made with a surfeit of sugar or caffeine.
     “And you boys?” The waitress stood with her pencil poised over her pad.
     “For all of us,” Alissa told her.
     The waitress sniffed and shook her head as she moved off; maybe they were playing some kind of road game to keep the kid entertained. Who cared? The girl seemed polite enough.
     Alissa looked around the room with interest. All of the furnishings seemed to be at least thirty years old, some of the advertisements included. At least those advertisements that took the form of clocks or lights did. Two men at the end of the counter were looking at her. They smiled at her and waggled their fingers in a friendly way. She just looked at them until they turned away.
     The waitress eventually returned with their food and placed a plate before each of the Terminators without comment, dropping the last one in front of Alissa, who picked up her fork.
     “What do you say?” the woman asked, frowning and smiling at the same time.
     Alissa and the Terminators looked at her mutely. The waitress glanced at the Terminators somewhat nervously. “What’s the magic word?” she prompted the Infiltrator.
     This female has gone mad, the I-950 thought. She was certain that most humans didn’t believe in magic. Had she done something to precipitate this condition?
     “Thank you,” the waitress said carefully. She glanced again at the Terminators, then back at Alissa.
     “You’re welcome,” the I-950 said, equally carefully.
     The waitress laughed. “Enjoy,” she said, and moved off chuckling.
     Alissa watched her go nervously. Insane humans were unpredictable and, she’d read, often unnaturally strong. Strong as a Terminator? she wondered. She’d have to look it up.
     Her excellent peripheral vision told her that the two men at the counter were watching her. The I-950 frowned as she sawed at her meat. Was there something strange about her? She studied them carefully.
     They seemed ordinary enough. One was about fifty, with glasses and graying hair. The other was younger, perhaps late twenties, early thirties. That one had dark hair and was thin. Their glances became more furtive and the way they occasionally spoke to each other made her think they were talking about her. With a slight adjustment of her ears she listened in.
     “So, whaddaya think?” the thin one asked.
     “Definitely potential.” The older man glanced at her again. “Could be a real winner.”
     “Should we go for it?”
     After a long pause the older man said, “Big risk, might not be worth the trouble.”
     “Yeah, well, you gotta take the opportunities life sends ya. We gotta do something, for Christ’s sake.” The thin man took a sip of his coffee. “We got bills to pay.”
     The older man snorted and took a sip of his coffee.
     “Let’s see if any opportunities present themselves, okay? No point in doing things the hard way if you don’t have to. And those three boys look plenty hard, if you get my meaning.”
     As far as Alissa could tell, this conversation had nothing to do with her; in any case, it was irrelevant at the moment. She continued to eat steadily, her higher metabolism allowing her to eat adult volumes of food with ease. The waitress, when she returned, complimented her on it.
     “I was very hungry,” Alissa told her. “Are there facilities here?”
     The waitress pursed her lips in amusement and indicated a corridor to her right, moving aside when Alissa slipped out of the booth. “She’s cute,” she said to the Terminators when Alissa was out of hearing. They just looked at her. “So,” she said crisply after a silent moment, “you gonna have dessert?”
     As one, the three Terminators looked toward the bathrooms.
     The waitress rolled her eyes. “Coffee, then, until your little girl gets back?”
     One of the men at the counter threw down some bills and left. The other headed for the rest rooms. The waitress took note, estimating with a glance that the crumpled wad of money would pay their check.
     “Coffee,” the senior Terminator said at last, the answer its decision tree had offered as the best response.
     The waitress nodded and cleared the table; and she made a bet with herself that these weirdos wouldn’t tip.

Clay Radcliff was proud of the fact that, like the Boy Scouts on whom he had occasionally preyed, he was always prepared. He never left home without a nice clean handkerchief and his little bottle of chloroform tucked into his belt pouch. He lurked in the men’s room, the door open just a fraction, watching for the glorious little moppet who was soon to be his little movie star.
     Alissa finished her business, washed her hands, and disdained to use the endless linen towel that had apparently never been changed. Wiping off the wet on the skirt of her dress, she walked down the hall back toward the Terminators.
     Clay swung out behind her and with practiced ease clapped the handkerchief over her small face, pulling her tight to his soft stomach as he dragged her into the men’s room.
     Unexpectedly the little brat clawed backward, obviously aiming for his groin. He barely got his leg up in time to protect himself, and even then she grabbed the muscle with the force of a metal clamp. Clay gasped in pain, his mouth wide open in agony and surprise. He swung her off her feet and the girl began to pummel his legs with her sharp little heels. Each kick was like a hammer blow and Clay spread his legs, trying to get away from the punishment.
     Desperately he pressed her body against the wall, clamping her there with all his weight. Still she wriggled and kicked. Damn but the kid was strong! When the hell was she going to black out? Usually they went down instantly. He was getting dizzy from the goddamned fumes and she was still bucking like a bronco!

Alissa’s computer enhancements worked hard to overcome the effects of the chloroform. They warned her that if she didn’t break free in ten seconds she would succumb. The I-950 continued to fight. The slight differences in the muscle attachments in her arms and shoulders gave her a strength far beyond her size and years; and there was a greater flexibility built into her joints that allowed her to perform feats so unlikely that no ordinary human could anticipate them.
     She folded one leg behind her, pointing her foot, and rammed it upward into the man’s groin. He gasped in agony and his grip on her arms loosened. The I-950 twisted her arm free and reached up and back.
     The man didn’t even have time to react to the touch of a tiny hand on his throat. One moment he was folding over the agony in his groin, still trying to keep hold of her, the next he was thrashing on the floor, clawing at thin air, blood spraying from his throat, spurting from his mouth. He fell back, choking, his eyes bugging out in horror, the blood turning to a fan-shaped spray as he tried to scream.
     Alissa’s powerful little hand had snapped his windpipe like a paper straw.

Out in the parking lot Gil’s fingers beat a nervous tattoo on the van’s steering wheel. He’d been in position for over five minutes and he was feeling very conspicuous. Nobody sits outside an emergency door in a van with the motor running for no reason. Anybody who noticed probably wouldn’t think that reason was a good one. Most likely they’d think he was waiting for someone to finish robbing the diner.
     He wished. Robbery carried a fairly light sentence compared with kidnapping.
     Hurry your ass up, Gil! he thought fiercely.
     Three minutes later he slammed his palm against the wheel and opened the van door. He moved to the emergency door and opened it with exquisite caution. Gil breathed a sigh of relief when no alarm sounded. He peeked through the crack and saw no one in the short corridor; there was no sound from either bathroom.
     Gil looked around; no one was watching, so he slipped inside and moved quietly to the men’s room. Pressing his ear against the door, he listened and heard water running. Carefully he tried the knob and it turned. Gritting his teeth, Gil opened the door and slipped inside.

The little girl washing her dress in the sink looked up at Gil, who stood frozen, staring at the man lying on the floor in a spreading pool of blood. Slowly he turned to gaze at her sweet, expressionless face and innocent blue eyes and wondered if he was having a nightmare.
     She blinked at him and Gil shook his head. Her hair was drenched with blood and her face and arms wore flecks of blood so tiny it looked as though they’d been applied in a fine spray. He took a deep breath of the fetid air in the tiny room and nearly gagged on the complex mixture of blood and feces and disinfectant.
     Gil knew that somehow this beautiful little girl was responsible, that somehow, like an avenging angel, she was the answer to all the prayers of all the kids he and Clay had ever hurt. He pressed his back to the door and all he could think to say to her was “no,” over and over, half plea, half denial.

Alissa stared at the human. Then she smiled slightly, watching him pale as her expression changed. “You should have knocked,” she said gently.
     He turned to open the door and she squatted to pick up the chloroform-soaked handkerchief, then sprang up and grabbed him, her legs clamping around his arms so tightly he couldn’t dislodge her. The man shrugged and struggled, opening his mouth as though to shout. The I-950 pressed the handkerchief over his mouth and nose, effectively gagging him. Within seconds he began to totter. Apparently sensing his danger, he began trying to bite her, but Alissa easily kept his jaws apart. Then he slammed himself into the bathroom door. She grimaced and held on, extending her senses to see if anyone had heard the sound. Apparently the crash had been more significant in the bathroom’s small confines. No one commented, no one came.
     Her computer tested the man’s vital signs and concluded that he would shortly be unconscious. The I-950 lost patience; shortly wasn’t soon enough. She took one hand from his mouth and felt along the column of his throat. The man tried to shout, making muffled sounds, then tried to turn his head, obviously meaning to shake off both of her hands, almost succeeding in actually moving. Alissa found what she was searching for, and with a flex of her fingers she felt his hyoid bone snap.
     That should hurry things along, she thought with satisfaction.
     For a moment his struggles became more violent, then he fell forward. The computer confirmed unconsciousness and she let him go; pushing herself upright, she stared down at him. A brief spasm passed through the body and it voided, finally going limp. That was good. She hadn’t wanted any more blood to contend with.
     As she scrubbed her dress the child part of Alissa enjoyed pretending that Skynet had set up a test for her, just like it used to do for Serena, her mother/sister, a test that she had passed. But the computer part of her objected to the dissonance and with a wistful sigh she put the idea from her.
     She looked at the bodies on the floor. It would probably be best to leave here now. This incident had already caused enough delay.
     Holding up the dress, Alissa studied it. Most of the stains were gone, but there was a shadow of brownish red at the neckline. Future washings would probably remove the stain. Meanwhile she could hardly walk through the diner in a soaking-wet dress. She ordered the T-101s to meet her at the van and slipped out the back door in her underpants.


     The guys’ attitude had changed dramatically in just the few days that John had been gone. Wendy listened to them with growing unease.
     “I feel like I’ve been hypnotized,” Snog was saying. “I can’t believe I was making life-changing promises to some seventeen-year-old!”
     “If what John was telling us is true—” Wendy began.
     “Hey! He lied about his age,” Yam pointed out.
     “That’s because you guys were making such a big deal about it,” she said crossly. “Anyway, if Judgment Day happens, then at least we’ll have lives.”
     “His father is from the future,” Brad said dreamily. “He probably hasn’t even been born yet.” He looked around at his friends. “How the hell does that work?”
     “Not too well,” Yam commented. “At least as far as his dad was concerned.”
     “Yeah,” Carl agreed. “Imagine sending your father back through time to become your father, knowing he’s going to get killed.”
     There was a silence as they all contemplated the idea.
     “Do it to my old man in a flash,” Yam muttered.
     “Yeah, I’ve met him, I second that,” Carl said. They high-fived.
     Wendy frowned but said nothing. She listened uneasily, not liking the implied criticism of John, and not sure where they were going with this. Not knowing for sure how she felt about all this.
     On the one hand, she felt uneasy knowing that all John’s mother’s ravings were nothing but the truth; on the other, she didn’t like knowing that far from being the victim of some government conspiracy, his mother really had blown up a bunch of computer companies.
     And what would you have done? she kept asking herself. As yet she didn’t have an answer.
     “His mother must be terrifying,” Brad said, almost as though he was listening in on her thoughts.
     “I heard she was a fox,” Snog said, and waggled his brows.
     The guys started kidding and snickering about that, and Wendy listened. Maybe they were just acting out because John intimidated them. Her lips quirked in a smile. If seventeen-year-old John was intimidating, then maybe his mom was actually terrifying.
     “So what are we gonna do?” Carl asked. He looked directly at Snog.
     Snog shrugged, his eyes wide in a manner that invited Carl to say more.
     “What do you mean, what are we gonna do?” Wendy demanded.
     “Oh, c’mon,” Carl almost shouted. “When he’s around, you somehow can believe all that crazy shit. But let’s get real, guys. A father who hasn’t been born yet? Killer robots? A maniacal computer that’s going to blow up the world? That’s bullshit! None of that can possibly be real!”
     “But this is real,” Snog said. He held up the chip that John had left with them. “And he sure didn’t create this thing.” He gave Wendy an apologetic glance. “John’s smart, but he’s not smart like us, and none of us could have come up with this design, never mind actually manufacturing it. I know we all want to go into denial, guys. I can feel the pull myself. But there’s always this.” He shook the chip. “And this says it wasn’t a dream, and it isn’t a lie, it’s real. So what I’m gonna do is figure this baby out, then I’m gonna get my degree and get the hell outta Dodge before the fire comes down.”
     Wendy let out her pent-up breath quietly, tremendously relieved. If Snog had backed out on this project John had given them, the others would have followed his lead. There wouldn’t have been a thing she could have done about it, either to change their minds or to retrieve the chip.
     She met Snog’s glance and she still didn’t feel absolutely secure about him, but for now, he was on John’s side, and that would have to do.


     There had been a little spate of customers and it was a half hour later when the waitress noticed that the three men were still seated, unmoving and silent before their untouched coffee, and the little girl wasn’t back from the rest room yet. These guys are seriously getting on my nerves, she thought.
     She brought over the check.
     “Twenty-eight eighty-seven, boys,” she said with false cheer. “Hope you enjoyed it.” She stood, smiling expectantly, determined not to be intimidated by their size and their silence, even though she was.
     The three Terminators looked at her, their faces expressionless, unblinking. Then one of them took a wallet out of Alissa’s bag and extracted two twenties. The waitress, so tense she actually felt taller, began to count out change. Then, as one, they suddenly rose and walked out, paying her no more attention than if she’d been invisible.
     “Well, hell!” she murmured. Then she shook herself.
     She’d been wrong; they were good tippers. But she hoped she’d never meet their like again.

Soon after her strange customers had gone it occurred to the waitress that she might want to check the ladies’ room. She didn’t quite trust that strange little girl.
     Opening the door, she found the place in perfect order. Well, as perfect as a rest room ever got. As she went back down the corridor she decided to check the men’s room to see if it needed paper.
     A bloodcurdling scream was heard all the way to the kitchen.

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