Excerpt from the novel Rising Storm by S.M. Stirling
Clea did her best to project untutored country girl at the CEO and president of Cyberdyne. In an effort to aid that effect she’d worn a denim skirt and jacket with a red plaid Western shirt, her tooled leather belt had a big silver buckle, and on her feet were a pair of well-broken-in cowboy boots. The rustic costume, with the glasses and attitude, she hoped, would eliminate any resemblance to Serena’s slick corporate look and, therefore, to Serena.
As long as he doesn’t focus on my tits, some sardonic corner of her mind thought. They’re just like Serena’s. Clea scowled at the inner voice; it was far too much like the recorded memories of her clone sister/mother.
Eventually they would notice; it was inevitable. But by that time they would be used to her and might comment on the resemblance, but they wouldn’t be suspicious. Merely curious.
That’s one of the things I actually like about humans—their willingness to explain away anything strange. From what she’d observed, on her own and through Serena’s memories, they’d perform some unbelievably convoluted feats of logic to return to their everyday frame of reference. At times she found it incredible that these people had conceived and build Skynet.
The I-950 set her battered briefcase on the conference-room table and extracted a portable computer, smiling nervously at the two men as she set it up. The new corporate HQ was nothing like Serena’s memories of the underground center the Connors had destroyed; it was pure minimalist functionality, the sort of “nothing” that cost a great deal of money, and left you wondering if anything as vulgar as paper ever crossed anyone’s desk. Some of the people in the cubicles outside weren’t even using thin-screen monitors; they were peering into the telltale blackness of vision goggles, miniature lasers painting text and diagrams directly on their retinas.
“Would you like some coffee?” the president of Cyberdyne offered. Paul Warren hefted a carafe with his own hands, considerable condescension from an executive at his level.
She shook her head and gave him a shy smile. He smiled back warmly and she knew she’d taken the right tack with him. Serena had considered initiating a romantic affair with him, but she’d miscalculated his affection for his wife. This was one instance in which Serena’s mistake really didn’t matter, though. The woman had had to die, even if it did turn out to be a setback in other areas.
By now, though, he must be lonely and his distress over his wife’s death should be fading. Perhaps she should co-opt Serena’s plan for herself. Although the very thought of intimate relations with a human revolted her.
“Welcome to Cyberdyne,” Roger Colvin said. “I think, based on what I saw at the unveiling the other night, that we’ve got a lot to offer each other.”
Clea squirmed as though pleased and allowed her face to flush as though she was embarrassed. Don’t overdo it, she warned herself. “Thank you,” she said aloud, allowing just a touch of Montana into her voice.
“I was just wondering,” Warren said, “what have you named your product and have you got a copyright on it.”
“I, uh, sent in the paperwork, but I hadn’t heard back before I left home.” She shrugged. “It may be that it hasn’t caught up with me yet.”
“We’ll check on that for you,” Colvin said. “What name have you registered it under?”
“Intellimetal,” Clea said. She smiled ruefully. “That’s more for what it will be one day than for what it can do now. What Mr. Hill was working with was my earliest successful prototype.”
“Really,” Colvin said, his voice dripping with interest.
“Uh-huh,” she said, smiling. “But”—she twisted her fingers together—“I’d rather not go into detail until we’ve come to some sort of agreement.” Clea shrugged prettily. “My uncle was a stickler for getting things in writing. Never agree to anything until you see it written down, he’d say. It always looks different then.”
Warren and Colvin exchanged a glance that said, “This little lady might be inexperienced, but she’s nobody’s fool.”
They set to work, and work it was. Clea knew exactly what she wanted, how much she wanted, and what terms she’d accept. As far as she was concerned, almost nothing was negotiable, however hard the two humans tried. Two hours later Clea typed in the last word of her “rough notes,” as she called them, on her portable and handed the CEO a disk.
“There ya go,” she said cheerfully. “Now I’ll need to see this all written up formally before I can even begin to decide for sure what I want to do.”
“Thank you,” Colvin said palely.
“You’re welcome.” She met his eyes and leaned forward confidentially. “I would like to leave you contemplating this one little idea I had. Now, I haven’t done any real special work on it, but I’ve been thinking about it real hard.” Watch the Montana effect, she warned herself. She was in serious danger of enjoying her role too much.
“We’d love to hear about it,” Warren said, leaning forward himself.
“Well. You know the F-101, that flying-wing stealth plane?”
The two men nodded.
“The only reason something like that can keep from crashing is because it has an onboard computer that makes thousands of adjustments a minute.” Her listeners nodded again. “So I was thinking, what we need is a machine that can do that and know it’s doing it. You know what I mean?”
Colvin and Warren exchanged nervous glances.
“A machine like that could control thousands of planes, thousands of miles apart. And not just planes, either, but tanks and gun emplacements and even battle robots.” Clea sat back, having noticed long since the subtly appalled expressions on their faces. “Not detailed control—it would be a distributed system—but a strategic artificial intelligence… Is something wrong?”
“No, no. It sounds fascinating,” Warren reassured her. “But… well, perhaps at some future date we could look into something like that. But right now you’ve put so much into developing Intellimetal that we’d like to help you with that project.”
She was silent for a moment, her glance roving from one to the other. “Really?” Clea tapped her fingertips on the arms of her chair. “Because I’ve always thought of Cyberdyne as one of the foremost robotics specialist in the field. I had the impression that artificial intelligence was sort of your bailiwick.”
“You have to understand, Ms. Bennet”—Colvin spread his hands helplessly—“that in some instances our hands are tied.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh!” she said, looking from one to the other. “I see.” then she shrugged, and allowed another blush. “And here I thought I was being original.”
“I’m sure that anything that comes out of that brain of yours is original, Ms. Bennet,” Colvin said.
“Absolutely,” Warren agreed eagerly.
Clea smiled at them. “Well then,” she said, rising. “I’m sure you gentlemen have a great deal to do and I’ve already taken up an amazing amount of your time.”
“Not at all.” Colvin rose with her and extended his hand.
“She shook it, smiling, and turned to Warren, who had offered his hand as well. “I’ll look forward to hearing from you, then.”
With a nod the I-950 preceded them out of the room and without another word or backward glance marched down the corridor toward the elevator.
Warren looked askance at the CEO and gestured toward the young woman. “Is she annoyed, or something?” he asked.
Colvin shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. She may be a little socially backward. Apparently she was raised by an eccentric uncle in the wilds of Montana and they didn’t get out much. Home schooling, the whole nine yards. She’s never even been to a university.”
“You’re kidding!” Warren said, appalled.
Colvin held up his hand. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“Yeah, and I’m going to say it, too. Why would we want to hire some kid who’s never even graduated from college, especially at the price and on the terms she’s demanding? That’s crazy.”
“We’re trying to hire her so that we can exploit this metal she’s invented. You have to see this statue to believe it, Paul. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever laid eyes on.”
“Why don’t I just hop on a plane to New York, then, and go take a peek?” Warren asked.
“Why don’t you just trust me, buddy?” Colvin said, putting an arm around the presidents shoulders. “I know what I’m doing here. Believe me, if we don’t snap her up now somebody else will. Look, we’re going to put in an escape clause, right? So we can both walk away if it doesn’t work out and nobody’s a loser. Right?”
“If she walks she’ll take that Intellimetal with her,” the president warned.
“You’ve gotta trust our lawyers to write a better contract than that,” Colvin said with a smile.
Clea was pleased. They’d accepted her without question. For the first time in ages she felt that she’d performed well. The only downside was that they hadn’t risen to the bait she’d dangled in the way she’d expected. Could it be that they really weren’t involved in the Skynet project any longer?
Cyberdyne had provided a limo and driver for her and the car was waiting out front when she exited the building. She didn’t even acknowledge the driver when he opened the door for her, but stepped in and settled herself for the ride back to the hotel, lost in her own thoughts.
Clea woke up lying on a sofa, its firm cushions upholstered in a blue-green tweed. The room she was in appeared to be a cheaply paneled conference room, with, unusually, a large mirror in the wall opposite the couch. No. That is one-way glass. The room is institutional; government, not corporate.
Her eyes searched the mirror for hints of movement from a possible hidden room as she sharpened her hearing and listened.
“…took enough hypno to knock out an elephant! I thought she’d never go down,” a male voice was saying.
“Maybe there’s a flaw in the delivery system,” another man answered, “because she just woke up. If she’d absorbed as much of the drug as you say you gave her, she’d sleep until tomorrow night.”
Clea detected movement in the mirror, as though one of the speakers had leaned forward for a better look.
Well, well. I’ve been kidnapped! One of Cyberdyne’s more aggressive competitors, perhaps? Or Cyberdyne itself? She considered the idea. It would be strange if it was them. For one thing, nothing in their dossier indicated that they played such games. For another, it seemed a criminal waste of their president and CEO’s time if they had intended to negotiate by force all along.
Now who else might have an interest in my little inventions? And who else could or would employ such an extreme technique as drugging and kidnapping her? Organize crime came briefly to mind, but she dismissed the idea. They were hardly into research and development.
It’s much more likely to be Tricker or one of his friends, she thought. Excellent.
She’d been wondering where the agent had got himself to; it looked like she might be about to find out.
Clea sat up, faking a wobbliness that she in no way felt, one hand to her brow as though her head ached. Which it should, but for the computer and nanites that had worked so hard to cleanse her blood. She blinked, and narrowed her eyes as though the fluorescent light bothered her.
“Hello?” she said, sounding shaky.
“That’s my cue, said one of the men.
She heard a door open and close and there was a flash of light in the mirror. Then the door to the room she was in opened and she got up from the couch quickly. The I-950 immediately sat down again, resting her head against the back of the couch, her hand over her eyes as though dizzy.
“Take it easy, miss,” the man said soothingly. “Are you okay?”
“Dizzy,” she murmured.
She dropped her hand as though exhausted, keeping her eyes closed for effect. But her nose and ears told her where he was, even what he’d last eaten—hamburger with some sort of hot sauce. The glimpse she’d had of him when he walked in confirmed her suspicion. He worked for the government. His clothing and appearance were so artfully average that in a crowed he would be effectively invisible. It wasn’t Tricker, but he might have been a close relative.
“That will pass,” the man said gently.
She heard water pouring and then felt the touch of his hand. Opening her eyes, she saw that he was offering her a glass of water; when she took it he held out two aspirin.
“For the headache I’m sure you have, he said with a sympathetic smile.
Clea accepted the pills and took them with a sip of water, studying him over the rim of the glass. He was tall and slender, with muddy hazel eyes and a narrow face; his silvering blond hair was beginning to recede and there was an element of grayness about him somehow. But his voice was pleasant, as was his manner, both conveying trustworthiness.
Which was actually quite different than Tricker, who seemed to go out of his way to be abrasive. And yet this man reminded her of no one so much as of Serena’s old nemesis.
He could be dangerous if he needed to be, she thought. Or if he wanted to be. There was the essential resemblance; like Tricker, this man was competently ruthless. Not unlike myself, she thought. They probably work for the same agency.
Clea swallowed. “Where am I?” she asked.
He didn’t answer, but sat looking at her.
“And who are you?” She pulled herself up until she was sitting straight.
“Aren’t you going to ask why you’re here?” he prompted.
“Well, I assume you’re going to tell me,” she snapped. “Or are we just going to sit and stare at each other until we starve to death? But I’ve got to tell you, mister, if you’re looking for a ransom you’ve got the wrong girl! My only relative is dead and all I’ve got in the world is a few thousand dollars in the bank. So what’s going on here?”
“That’s not entirely true, Ms. Bennet, now is it?” the gray man said. “You have the house and land in Montana, don’t you?”
The I-950’s eyes widened quite involuntarily as her mind flashed to that empty grave in the modest country cemetery. Should she have replaced the Terminator with a human corpse? Surely they wouldn’t check her background that thoroughly?
“Oh yes,” the man continued complacently, “we know everything there is to know about you. Certainly everything that is a matter of public record.” He gave her a tight little smile. “And we’ve come to the conclusion that only we can offer you the resources to allow your inventiveness full scope.”
“Who are you?” she almost shouted. All the time thinking, Ah, so I was right. Tricker’s gang.
“My name is Pool,” he said.
“Just Pool?” Clea demanded sarcastically, remembering Tricker’s insistence on being called a simple, unadorned “Tricker.”
“Yes,” he agreed with a slightly deprecatory smile. “Just Pool.”
Clea drew in a deep breath. “And who is we, Pool?”
The smile broadened. “We are your tax dollars at work, Ms. Bennet.”
Setting her jaw, Clea tilted her head at a defiant angle. Actually she was delighted; the government had to have taken over the Skynet project when Cyberdyne’s second facility was destroyed… by the Connors, again. But a human would object to this sort of treatment…
“And if I don’t want to work for the government?” she asked.
Pool shrugged. “Then we would have to tell Vladimir Hill that the wonderful new material you’ve been letting him play with as though it was clay is one of the most carcinogenic materials ever devised.” He paused as if to gauge her reaction.
Clea gave him one. “Nonsense!” she snapped, sitting forward. Then she looked queasy and leaned back again. “What are you talking about?”
“He’ll probably be dead by next year,” Pool said. “But that would allow him plenty of time to sue you. And, of course, there would probably be charges of criminal negligence. You’d probably do jail time.” His eyes cooled. “In fact, you can count on that. And afterward, well, Cyberdyne wouldn’t touch you or Intellimetal with a ten-foot pole, and neither would anyone else.” He spread his hands. “Which would leave you with us. But not before we both lost a lot of time and effort and money. So why not just cooperate and we’ll all be happy?”
Clea allowed herself to look shaken; her computer dropped her circulation slightly so that her face would go pale.
“Does Vladimir have… cancer?” Her eyes widened. “Do I?” she asked, her voice quavering.
“We don’t know, actually, your tests aren’t back. But the odds are good. As for Hill, in good conscience, of course, we can’t let him remain at risk. We’ll warn him quite soon, and if it’s caught early enough there’s always a chance that he might survive. You, too, of course. But we think you’d be better off if you suddenly became unavailable. Don’t you?”
She nodded, looking shell-shocked, or so the mirror told her.
He smiled, an avuncular smile this time; Pool seemed to have quite a repertoire. “Very wise,” he murmured. “You won’t regret it, I’m sure. Our terms won’t be quite as generous as Cyberdyne’s, but our facilities are the best and our research budget is virtually unlimited.” He stood, smiling down at her. “Why don’t you lie back down and get some rest,” he advised. “That drug can pack quite a punch. Later on someone will come and take you to your room, where you can have something to eat and relax. Then tomorrow we’ll outfit you for your new job and by evening you’ll be on you way.”
“On my way where?” she asked, trying to sound crushed. Instead, her computer component was suppressing glee; this was turning out exactly as planned. And if it hadn’t [there was a] sixty-seven percent probability of terminating all units here and escaping without irreparable damage, she calculated automatically.
His lips jerked into a mirthless smile, and he turned to the door. “I’d rather not say,” he told her. Then he walked out the door.
She heard the click of a lock and then his receding footsteps. Clea covered her mouth as though feeling sick and leaned over, hanging her head. Then she lay down and, turning her back to the mirror, began to sob quietly for the benefit of whoever still lurked in the room behind the mirror.
It was too late now to do anything about her missing “uncle,” she decided. Agents might still be loitering around asking questions, making it very risky to fill the empty hole.
I’ll just have to take a chance on it, she thought. But even if they do open the grave to find it empty, that proves nothing. At least, nothing against her. Even so, it bothered her.
It was very hard, she reflected, to know when to stop refining a plan. I should inform Alissa of the latest developments…