“This Man was No More Human than that Cell Phone You’re Holding”

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]

     Dieter smiled. She might not be mad, but she wasn’t happy, either.
     While they’d been thrashing out whether Sarah was to go or not, he’d been wondering if he dared call his old friend Jeff Goldberg, his former partner in the Sector.
     I suppose I might as well, he thought. Sully must have made a report by now, and even if he hadn’t, they already knew about my association with the notorious Sarah Connor. Which means that Jeff knows, too.
     He went to the wall and took down a heavily framed painting, setting it to lean against the file cabinet. Then he worked the combination of the safe it had hidden. Removing the valuable papers and other odds and ends inside the surprisingly deep little safe, he opened a tiny secret compartment with a few deft touches. Inside was a cell phone.
     In Vienna, Jeff had one just like it.
     When Dieter had retired they’d decided to arrange a private means of communication in the event that either ever had need of the other’s aid. At the time von Rossbach had been thinking that his partner, still active in a very dangerous profession, might need his help. It just went to show you; a backup plan was always a good idea.
     He placed the phone on his desk and booted up his computer. Once on the Internet he sent off the coded message that would bounce through a few different addresses before it reached Jeff. Then he sat back to wait. It could be a while.

     An hour and a half later the phone range. Dieter snatched it up. “Yes?” he said.
     “I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.”
     “It’s because in spite of everything you’ve heard, you know you can trust me,” Dieter said.
     “If I can trust you then why does it look like you’ve gone over to the other side?” Jeff’s voice was stressed, not usual.
     Dieter wondered if, in spite of their precautions, this call was being monitored—if Jeff was letting this call be monitored.
     “You know better than that,” von Rossbach said dismissively. “What’s the gossip about me?”
     “Gosssip? If it was gossip I could doubt it. I’m talking about official reports, Dieter.”
     “And for what am I supposed to have done in these reports?”
     “For starters, harboring a wanted fugitive!” Goldberg snapped.
     “When was this?” Careful, Dieter thought. You don’t want to antagonize him any further.
     “You know goddamn well when. You were the one who sent me those sketches of her. Then you said the description didn’t match. And of course I believed you because my good buddy wouldn’t lie to me! Next thing I know, you’re running around California recruiting for her army!”
     Dieter was silent for a while as he gathered his thoughts. He’d thought he knew what he was going to say, thought he knew how to counter any arguments Jeff might throw at him. But now that the moment was here he found he couldn’t use any of those glib explanations, because most of them were lies. He couldn’t do that to a man who had been at his back through most of his dangerous career. He’d already done it too often.
     Dieter took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I owe you an apology,” he said. “I did know it was probably her, but I was intrigued and wanted to investigate her by myself. Especially when you sent me that recording of a man with my face killing police by the dozen. I was bored here and feeling useless.” He shrugged, though his former partner couldn’t see it. “Then you sent Griego and I felt like I had to defend my turf. It wasn’t sensible, and I know it wasn’t professional, but I’d gotten to know her a little by then and I wanted to know more.”
     Goldberg was silent for a long time. “Go on,” he said at last, his voice giving nothing away.
     Dieter felt relieved. At least he was being given a chance to explain. “One night I went over to her house.” He frowned at the memory. “I was bringing a dog for her son, more of a puppy, really.” He took a deep breath and force himself to continue. “Before I knew it we were under attack. By a heavily armed man with my face.”
     “Bullshit!” Goldberg snapped.
     “I wish. God, do I wish you were right.” Until this moment he hadn’t realized how much he would give for all that had happened to have been a dream. “But you’re not. The face was mine, but this man was no more human than that cell phone you’re holding. I saw the body. It had no internal organs—just metal, wire, motherboards, stuff like that. There were sparks flying out of it and it took an incredible amount of ammunition to stop the damn thing.”
     “Do you think I’m an idiot!” Goldberg shouted. “What the hell is the matter with you?”
     Dieter kept silent for a moment; he tightened his mouth and closed his eyes as if in pain. “Jeff,” he said quietly, “I had a whole bunch of lies made up to tell you. I was going to be investigating this thing on my own, trying to find out how far Connor’s influence extended. You know me. I’m good at being convincing when I need to be. You’d have believed me before I was finished with you. But you deserved the truth, so I took a chance and told it to you.”
     Jeff was breathing hard, his breath whistling through the phone. “Shit!” he muttered.
     “Believe it or not, I know how you feel,” Dieter commiserated. “Why would I tell you a story like this if it wasn’t true? Don’t you think I know how all this sounds? Why would I even try if it wasn’t true?”
     He stopped talking, waiting for his old partner to work it through.
     “She could have talked you ’round,” Jeff said at last. “Connor was a damned attractive woman.” His voice was wary, but much less hostile.
     “Yeah, and I’m really susceptible to wild stories and sexy women. That’s why I was such a rotten agent.” Von Rossbach sneered.
     Jeff gave a short laugh. “Nooo, you were pretty good.”
     “I still am.”
     “Yeah, well. This is a pretty crazy story, buddy. You know that.”
     “Have you seen Sully’s report?”
     “Sully is, uh, undergoing psychiatric evaluation. You know he’s one of ours?”
     “Would I ask about his report if I didn’t?”
     “Good point.”
     “Jeff, Sarah Connor is crazy, her son is crazy, Sully’s crazy. Now I’m crazy? Maybe instead they’ve been telling the truth all along?”
     Goldberg gave a kind of hiss. “I can’t go there, buddy. I just can’t.”
     “Are you at least willing to think about it?”
     After a rather painful silence Goldberg said, “Yeah. I could do that.”
     “Good. I need your help.”
     Jeff barked a laugh. “You cocky bastard! You sure you don’t want to give me two more seconds to mull this over?”
     “Well, what the hell. I figured you wanted something, otherwise we wouldn’t be talking on these phones. Right?”
     “You got it, buddy.” Von Rossbach waited, wanting his friend to ask.
     “So what do you want?” Jeff said.
     “I’m trying to trace a possible kidnap victim.”
     “Whoa! If you’re talking about Sarah Connor, she took off on her own. If you’re talking about Dr. Silberman, how do you think we know that she took off on her own?”
     Dieter winced. He wanted to tell the truth. But I think I’ve tried Jeff’s patience enough for one evening. “What are you talking about?”
     There was a pregnant pause from Vienna. Then Goldberg asked cautiously, “You don’t know?”
     “Sarah Connor is missing again?” Dieter asked. “Last I heard she was in an institution.”
     “If you don’t know where she is and what she’s doing, then why are you rounding up recruits for her cause?” Jeff challenged.
     “Because I promised her I would before she disappeared from here. I don’t know how much good I’ve done her. Being chased all over California by the Sector didn’t help my efforts. But in any case, she’s not the person I’m talking about.”
     “Oh.” Jeff was silent for a moment. “So, what? Are you a PI now or something?”
     “No, just letting my curiosity get the better of me. This woman is named Clea Bennet, she’s the inventor of something called Intellimetal. They made this sculpture in New York out of it.”
     “Yeah. Venus Dancing, it’s called. It’s all the rage, everyone’s pretty excited about it. Nancy wants us to go see it for ourselves,” Goldberg said.
     “Clea Bennet has been missing for a little while now,” Dieter explained. “I have some suspicion that it might have been the U.S. government that snatched her.”
     “You sure that suspicion isn’t an effect of the people you’ve been hanging out with?”
     Dieter let out an exasperated sigh. “This guy named Craig Kipfer’s been getting reports on a woman from Montana. The reports read like Bennet’s biography. Kipfer passed along an order, I quote, ‘send her to Antarctica,’ that jogged a memory for me. Just before I left the Sector there were hints of someone building an important and very secret research facility ‘on the ice.’ Do you know anything about that?”
     Jeff was absolutely silent.
     “Hello?” Dieter prompted.
     “Kipfer isn’t someone you should have heard about,” Goldberg said at last. “He is like, ultra-black ops. As for the research facility…”
     There was more contemplative silence, but Dieter waited it out this time.
     “I can’t believe I’m telling you this, but… yeah. It’s there. We know where it’s located, but aside from that we know very little. The only thing we can be sure of is that they’re not doing nuclear testing. For once the Americans are playing their cards close to their chests. Though to be fair, it’s not the kind of place that’s easily infiltrated.”
     “So who have you got there?” Dieter said blandly.
     Jeff laughed. “None of your business. Even if we did have somebody there you probably wouldn’t know them.”
     “So where is this base?”
     Dieter waited; would his friend come through for him? Jeff had no particular reason to cover for the U.S. government, but at the moment neither did he have a particular reason to help his old partner.
     “You’re not going to blow it up are you?” Jeff asked sourly.
     Von Rossbach laughed in surprise. “No! That’s not the plan anyway. I might try to rescue this young woman. Assuming she’s there under duress, of course.”
     “Tsk!” Jeff said. “I thought you were out of the hero business.”
     “You going to tell me or not?” Dieter asked.
     “Don’t make me regret this,” Goldberg warned.
     “I won’t, I swear,” Dieter said, fingers crossed. After all, who knew?
     “It’s in west Antarctica.” Jeff gave him the coordinates. “The base itself is slightly inland.” He gave a brief physical description of the place. “You could hike there from the coast in three days.”
     “Thanks, Jeff.”
     “Dress warm.”
     “Yes, Dad. Give my best to Nancy.”
     “You bet.” Goldberg paused. “God, Dieter, don’t make me regret this, please.”
     “Don’t worry.”
     “Just don’t. Okay?”
     “You’ll get old and gray worrying like that,” Dieter teased. “I’m just curious, is all. I like a good puzzle.”
     “If you hear from Connor—”
     “I won’t.”
     “Yeah, right. Don’t blow anything up,” Jeff warned.
     “But that’s the fun part!”
     Jeff hissed in exasperation, then laughed. “Y’know, you’re right.”
     Dieter laughed, too. “Bye, buddy. Thanks.”
     “I am so going to regret this,” Jeff said, sounding more amused than worried.
     “No comment. Bye.” Dieter hung up.
     This American base must be one of Jeff’s projects, otherwise he wouldn’t have the information at his fingertips like that. A lucky break, Dieter though.
     He’d check with Sarah and John to see how their research on supplies was going. Then he’d see about arranging transportation.

Leave a Reply