San Rafael, California
It wasn’t exactly a jungle, but in the decades since Judgment Day, trees had forced their way up through street pavement and sidewalk concrete; grasses and weeds had overrun lawns and medians. Now, where on a normal afternoon traffic sounds would have once drowned out every other noise, John Connor could hear only the summery rise and fall of insects calling to one another. That, and the occasional bang or clank or curse from the crew working behind him.
He stood at the open loading door, looking out into the overgrown parking lot. There were still some cars, here, left behind when the world went to hell decades ago, but they shared the lot with aggressive waist-high weeds and, wonder of wonders, a lemon tree that had taken root at the corner of the property.
John felt a bit like the parking lot. His wife still told him his face was handsome; that his upright posture, his camo-style uniform, all projected the image of a leader of men, grayed but unbending. But on days like this he could feel every injury that he had sustained in his fifty-plus years—every gunshot wound, every broken bone, every burn. Scars, new and old, marked his body like weeds marked the parking lot, and there were more every year.
Even so, he needed to lead the occasional mission in the field. He was the leader of the Resistance, and decades of experience made it clear to him that the men and women he commanded would lose faith in a commander who always sat safely in his hardened underground bunker at Home Plate compound, dispatching others to their deaths. To keep spirits up, to keep himself from becoming some sort of distant, unattainable figure who never met and therefore could never inspire the troops elsewhere, he had to expose himself to danger a few times each year.
He couldn’t complain. There were men and women in his forces—including his own children—who exposed themselves to danger several times a month. There were some who almost never had the opportunity to relax, to feel safe.
“Hey.” The voice was female. He glanced over his shoulder at the speaker.
She stood a few feet behind him, just beside the angled column of light spilling in through the loading door, and it took his eyes a moment to adjust so he could make out her features. She was of average height and build, but he didn’t find her in the least average. Her nose was just a little too broad to be considered elegant; but that, her round face, and her mouth—made for smiling—added up to a combination that was impossibly attractive. Her eyes were dark brown, her hair graying from the same color. She wore a camo uniform like his, though she’d set aside the belt with its holsters and pouches.
He modulated his tone to that of an office lothario. “Hey, yourself,” he said. “Are you new?”
She grinned, taking on the cuteness of a teenager. “First day here.”
“What are you doing after work?”
“I was thinking about a long moonlit drive with a bunch of sweaty freedom fighters.”
He offered her a mock shudder. “Well, I guess a girl’s got to do what makes her happy.” He dropped the act. “How’s it going back there?”
“They’ll be ready for the fourth truck in about two minutes. They wanted me to tell you to send out the call.”
She turned away, toward the dark interior of the loading dock. He reached out and caught her by the shoulder, dragging her back to him. Off-balance, she fell into his grasp, simultaneously grinning and scowling up at him. “What?”
“Kate, you know the price for approaching this checkpoint.”
She leaned up to kiss him. “There. Does everyone who passes this way have to do this? Earl? Warthog? Crazy Pete?”
“I dunno. It’s a brand-new policy.”
Laughing, she shrugged free of him and headed back into the manufacturing facility.
John stared after his wife for a moment, savoring the bare minute of privacy they’d shared, perhaps the only minute they’d have this day. Then, reluctantly, he turned his mind back to business.
The building they were pillaging, a sprawling, nearly windowless single-story edifice larger than a football field, had once been decorated with a sign that read, EOSPHOR TECHNOLOGIES. Before Judgment Day, it had been a circuit board manufacturing concern, a subcontractor that built boards for companies that sold munitions components directly to the government. The sign had fallen, possibly on Judgment Day, possibly many years later. For whatever reason, the interior of the building had survived unpillaged for decades, and one of Connor’s scouts had discovered it a few weeks ago. Two days ago, Connor’s advance team had arrived and begun preparing selected pieces of equipment for transportation.
They couldn’t take everything. A rough estimate of the amount of equipment here suggested that it would take a convoy of forty trucks or more to move every item of machinery, all surviving chemicals, all fabrication supplies. He had five trucks, a massive and vulnerable convoy by the standards of the Skynet-controlled world. So they had to be selective.
The equipment his technical team was dismantling and preparing for transportation included computers that his programming adviser Ávila had said still worked, still contained diagrams for hundreds of varieties of circuit boards. There was a room-size plotter that could transcribe those circuit board plans onto sheets of silver-coated Mylar at photographic levels of reproduction, for use in exposing circuitry images onto copper-clad fiberglass laminates. There were photographic exposure units, some merely oversize and ungainly, some large enough nearly to fill the back of a two-and-a-half-ton truck. There were rugged, hardy screen printers for use in silkscreen processes, usable both for circuit board manufacturing and more mundane tasks such as cloth decoration. Last of the primary haul, but certainly not least in size, were laminate presses that turned individual layers of laminates into multilayer circuit boards.
Less crucial to circuit board fabrication but still useful to the Resistance were control computers for sophisticated drill processes, laboratory equipment, tools, components for setting up partitions and metal cage walls, and parts scavenged from dozens of machines.
The booty from this haul, augmented by equipment that John’s technicians would assemble on site, would allow the Resistance to set up two entire circuit board fabrication lines. That meant two sites that could produce radios, targeting systems, even computers someday. The lines would be much slower, much less efficient than those operating before Judgment Day, but they’d be a tiny edge in the favor of humanity, a fraction-of-a-percentage improvement in mankind’s chances for survival. The Human Resistance had other circuit board fabrication sites operating, but every additional one they set up increased their available resources.
And with luck, the Eosphor Technologies building would go unnoticed by Skynet even after their departure. A few months from now, perhaps a year, they might be able to return and pick up even more equipment.
He pulled his field phone from its belt pouch. Shaped much like one of the walkie-talkies he’d known from his youth, it seemed cruder, more unfinished than the commercial products of the twentieth century. Its surfaces were black-painted metal instead of molded plastic. A cable ran up from a jack atop the device to the headset John wore and the microphone on his lapel.
With his thumb, he popped open the protective faceplate, revealing a small LCD screen and an alphanumeric keypad. He keyed in the following commands:
TRANS STARLING ALL<ENTER>
This operation was code-named Starling, a random word generated by a computer program back at his base of operations. The first command had instructed the simple microprocessor in the device to send the rest of the message only to the participants in the operation. “Ac 4T” was shorthand for “activate fourth transport.” The entire transmission would be encrypted when transmitted.
It would have been much easier to have depressed the speaker button on the faceplate, or to have keyed the microphone attached to his lapel, and spoken the appropriate words. But a voice transmission took much more time to transmit than his five-character code, was easier to detect and decode, and was less likely to be mistaken for an atmospheric anomaly. A voice transmission would, in short, drastically increase their odds of getting someone killed.
And there just weren’t enough people left alive for him to let himself be careless that way.
* * *
Half a mile to the south, four figures huddled under a tarpaulin on a rooftop. They were situated at the edge of the roof where some long-ago calamity had knocked away a portion of the waist-high protective wall. The hole gave them an unobstructed view of the city’s ruins southward.
Kyla Connor, the woman with her eye to the sniper rifle’s high-powered scope, was young, not yet quite out of her teens. Her dark brown hair, a practical shoulder length, was tucked up under her billed cap. Her features were even and flawless; at rest, as they were now, they were unmemorable, but when lit by one of her rare smiles, they were transformed into earthy beauty. She wore the same camouflage uniform as most of the other participants in Operation Starling.
Her field phone beeped softly, but she didn’t stir. “Mark, get that, would you?” she whispered.
Mark Herrera, the man lying on his back beside her, yawned and stretched. He was darker than the woman, Latino, with everyday good looks that seemed made to wear their current expression, an amused and self-satisfied smile. He was perhaps a decade older than she, but with his more casual attitude he actually seemed younger. “Sure, sure. I wasn’t doing much. Just getting my first sleep in twenty hours.”
“God, you complain.”
He pulled out his field phone and popped the faceplate open, then tilted the device to read the screen in the dim light spilling in past the tarpaulin’s edge. “It’s your dad. Calling in the fourth truck.”
“Ahead of time. That’s good.”
The third member of their post offered up a concerned whine. Kyla didn’t break discipline; she kept her attention focused on the scope, which was trained through a break in the buildings ahead on a stretch of what had once been U.S. 101. But she did reach a hand back to scratch the whiner behind the ears. This was Ginger, eighty pounds of reddish-yellow Siberian Husky or Alaskan sled dog and who-knows-what, and she was a bit more anxious than Kyla’s other dog, Ripper. Ripper, lying sideways across the backs of Kyla’s knees, was 120 pounds of deep-chested, flat-faced guard dog. Kyla’s mother, once a veterinarian, said she thought he was mostly bullmastiff; but his coloration was evidence that he was not purebred. Ripper, seeing Ginger getting attention, wagged his short tail, making a thumping, rattling noise against the gravel of the roof.
“How long till dinner?” Mark asked.
Kyla restrained a sigh. Mark was just baiting her. “Why don’t you go out there and see if you can find an open restaurant?”
“Oh, good one. Of course, I might find a can of thirty-year-old, not-too-radioactive corned beef hash—”
There was something in the view afforded by her scope, something moving in the distance up the highway, and Kyla stiffened. “Hold it. Contact.”
All business, Mark rolled over onto his stomach and put his eyes to the sighting gear set up beside Kyla’s bipod-mounted rifle. “I don’t see it.”
“I think it dipped down into a depression in the road.”
Then it was there again, barely visible, a tiny dot moving like a car. Toward them.
“Transmit ‘Hell-Hounds Post One, contact, unknown, stand by,’” Kyla said. “And tell Daniel Ávila he was right again.”
HH-2, flag, ??, stdby.
John Connor read the message and swore silently. It was almost always too much to ask that any operation run without incident, but he always hoped.
Transport 4, an ancient Army truck kept miraculously alive by the mechanics of Connor’s Resistance movement, was backing up against the loading bay. The instant it came to rest, flush with the bay, its tailgate came down. Two men and a woman spilled out of the bed, and another woman out of the cab. In moments they deployed a long sheet that had once been a pair of recreational parachutes. Now tattered and unusable in their original role, they were painted as close as possible to a match with the gray of the parking lot, complete with occasional splashes of green to simulate weeds, and its handlers drew them up over the top of the truck. In the minutes it would take for the truck to be loaded, it would not be recognizable as a truck by the imaging satellites that still circled the Earth and fed their data to Skynet.
As the first of the dollies and pallet-jacks loaded with fabrication equipment and propelled by tired-looking but energetic Resistance fighters reached the rear of the truck, Kate rejoined her husband. She had her field phone in hand and looked worried—worried to the point of misery. “That’s Kyla, isn’t it?”
John nodded, waiting for the screen to update. “If this is anything but a false alarm, we might get out of here with the fourth truck, but we’re not going to get the fifth load.”
“We won’t even get the fourth truck out if we don’t use the Hell-Hounds for diversion.”
“I know.” John didn’t want to look at his wife at that moment.
If John Connor was the informal equivalent of the U.S. president, his Secret Service was Company A—the only company—of the Resistance 1st Security Regiment, the tiny branch of the armed forces devoted to Connor’s personal security. Company A was further broken down into several squadrons, each of which was used to ensure Connor’s safety or to undertake special missions that required an eclectic range of skills and nontraditional planning methods.
Though technically a branch of the military, the 1st Security Regiment tended to operate outside military procedure. Members were not addressed by military rank unless outsiders were present—it was enough to know who was in charge of the squad. Beyond that, everyone within the squad was equal.
Kyla Connor, John and Kate’s youngest child, was the junior member of Company A, Squad 3, the unit nicknamed the Hell-Hounds. And now, to get away with a truckload of antique machinery meant putting her at risk. Every time this sort of thing happened, John wondered if he would lose a child, and wondered if Kate would come to hate him because he had ordered it.
The screen changed:
HH-2, T800 Blondie, incoming.
That settled it. The contact Kyla had seen was a Terminator, one wearing a known set of facial features—dull-looking, approximately Scandinavian in appearance, muscular as a twentieth-century weight lifter. It was nicknamed Blondie.
“So they haven’t scrapped all the T-800s after all,” Kate breathed.
“I figured they hadn’t,” John said. “Skynet’s probably retiring them as they get harder to maintain, stripping their usable machinery rather than building new, dumping only those that aren’t cost-efficient.” He began keying in a new command.
Kate read what he was typing. “Dammit.”
HH play fox
“Truck five, go to ground,” Mark recited. “Hell-Hounds, play fox.”
“Fox, hell,” Kyla said. “Foxes don’t have sniper rifles or high explosives. Does Ten want me to go after him now? I need an answer in about sixty seconds.”
“Gotcha.” Mark keyed in the question in short form and got an answer in moments. “He says take your best shot and then we move up to join him and Earl.”
“Wind,” she said.
Mark returned his attention to his gear. “Nothing registering.”
In Kyla’s scope view, the vehicle bringing the Terminator to them topped another rise. It was a convertible, 2000-era, cream yellow, lacking a windshield. It was making good time, perhaps eighty miles an hour, about as fast as anyone could drive on the partially ruined highway without crashing. The air flowing across the car whipped the blond hair of the assassin-machine driving it.
Kyla had three options. She could put a round into the Terminator’s chest, the easiest shot. If she were very, very lucky, the round might penetrate, might even damage one of the robot’s hydrogen-fuel power cells and cause the Terminator to detonate; the explosion would be ferocious enough to destroy a portion of highway around it. But the most likely scenario for a chest shot was that it would impart enough kinetic energy to disrupt the robot’s reflexes for a moment, perhaps causing it to crash. It wouldn’t do the robot any real harm, unless the crash was spectacular.
She could aim at the robot’s skull, a more difficult shot, but the fact that the skull had lighter armor and less mass in general meant that the impact could conceivably do some real damage. Kyla had killed Terminators, one T-800 and two T-600s, with single head shots, and if she were very lucky now, she might repeat that feat. But her target was moving, so it would be easier to miss altogether.
Or she could aim at the left front wheel. At this angle, the shot was nearly as difficult as the head, but would almost certainly result in a wreck. And a wreck was the preferred outcome, regardless of whether it harmed the Terminator; without wheels, its land speed was reduced. It would not be able to get to the Eosphor Technologies site as quickly. The tire was the most sensible option.
She zeroed in on the Terminator’s head. Long ago, Daniel Ávila had taught her to play chess. She hadn’t liked the game much. It seemed meaningless to her. But it had helped her learn to think tactically, and she had discovered the distinction between playing to win, playing not to lose, and playing to aggravate a superior opponent by losing very slowly.
With Terminators, you played to win. Always. “Taking my shot,” she said. “Death to the toasters.”
“Death to the toasters,” Mark replied. It was the catch-phrase of the Hell-Hounds and had caught on with other units as well.
The convertible entered the long, straight, relatively undamaged section of highway overpass Kyla and Mark had picked out this morning. She would know exactly when it reached the 1,000-yard mark, measured from this roof edge; they had calculated the shot when they’d set up here hours ago.
Her rifle was a Barrett M99, fifty inches and twenty-five pounds of black steel and brushed-silver aluminum. It fired .50-caliber rounds that struck their targets with several times the foot-pounds of energy of other sniper rifles at comparable ranges. To those who concerned themselves with the aesthetics of small arms, it was a beautiful piece, elegant in its simplicity, a near-perfect marriage of form and function.
It had been manufactured a year before Judgment Day. That’s what its original owner, Sergeant Tony Calhoun, member of a Los Angeles Police Department SWAT team, had told her; it had been his personal property rather than a department-issued weapon. Calhoun, away from Los Angeles when the bombs had dropped on Judgment Day, had joined an ad hoc militia that had eventually become part of John Connor’s Resistance. He had trained many of its riflemen and snipers. In Kyla Connor, he’d found an ideal pupil—someone who was as calm and focused as the Terminators the snipers hunted.
When the cancer that was ultimately to take his life metastasized, Calhoun gave his rifle to Kyla, over the protests of Tony’s own son. When Calhoun died a few weeks later, Kyla had words engraved on the barrel: TONY CALHOUN, plus the dates of the man’s birth and death. The rifle was his only gravestone. Kyla suspected that it would probably be hers as well.
Kyla let out her breath, willing her body to absolute stillness—absolute except for her right index finger. With a slow, sure draw of the trigger, she fired.
* * *
The Terminator saw the distant glint. Its threat processor popped up a display of probabilities. The heaviest weighting, sixty-seven percent, was that the glint was a reflection from a piece of broken glass. Another twenty-two percent was that it was an emission from small-arms fire. That percentage would increase as the Terminator neared its objective, the search zone Skynet had defined as part of its mission.
Even if it was enemy action, however, the likelihood of it having any effect was extremely low. The glint was characteristic of small-arms fire, not rocketry. And at this range, an estimated one kilometer, small-arms accuracy was extremely low.
Then the .50-caliber round smashed into the Terminator’s left eye and tore out through the side of its skull behind its skull behind its temple.
The impact snapped the robot’s head back and to the left. Temporary disruption of its sensory input and its motor coordination caused the robot to spasm and lose control of the steering wheel. The vehicle began a sharp drift rightward toward the overpass rail.
Even with visual senses temporarily off-line and intellectual processes overloaded, the Terminator knew that an impact with the corroding rails and concrete barriers would probably result in their destruction. The car would punch through, hurling through the air, smashing into the ground below. It might explode, causing the robot additional damage. This was unacceptable.
The Terminator slammed on the brake. But in its impaired state it failed to factor in the structural integrity of the frail vehicle it controlled. Its foot smashed through the brake pedal and the salt-corroded floorboard, striking the highway passing beneath.
* * *
One block away, an aging black man and a younger white man, both dressed in camo and carrying heavy backpacks, raced toward the highway on foot. In clear view of the highway overpass, they saw the convertible crash through the overpass rails, barrel-rolling as it dropped the thirty feet to the ground. It hit, its front end accordioning, its rear end wrapping around and collapsing on the driver.
The older man, Earl Duncan, breathing heavily, said, “Good girl, Kyla. Hollywood quality.”
The younger, Lieutenant David Zimmerman, called Ten by the members of his team, took the opportunity to pull a weapon from his backpack. It was a tube a little over a yard long, a handle and trigger descending from it toward the rear, a crude sight protruding from it on one side nearer the middle, a bulbous mass attached to the front. It was a rocket-propelled grenade, a one-shot weapon that could, under rare and lucky circumstances, take out a robot as powerful and heavily defended as a T-800. “Let’s go.”
“Let’s wait. If it crawls out before we get right up on it, it can’t surprise us.”
Ten growled to himself. The one member of the team he led whose tactical sense was better than his was Earl. Ten propped himself behind the burned hulk of a Dodge SUV and sighted in on the car.
The smashed convertible caught fire along the underside. It shifted a little as its driver struggled; then it exploded. This wasn’t a big, spectacular explosion, just a smallish boom and the eruption of a mushroom cloud no bigger than the car had been; the smoke from the cloud rose to drift serenely beyond the overpass.
“Gas tank probably full,” Ten said. “Else the explosion would have been bigger.”
“And that means—?”
“It probably came straight from one of San Francisco’s old military bases. Just like Daniel predicted.”
The burning hulk, less cream yellow than black now, shifted and a figure rose out of the middle of it.
The T-800 was a bit the worse for wear. Its clothes, hair, even its skin were on fire. Unconcerned, it stepped out from the burning wreckage and took a look around. It reached down to shift the demolished car. Earl and Ten both noted that it didn’t have any sort of weapon in hand. It was probably searching for whatever long arm it had brought.
Ten fired. The RPG leaped away from him with a whoosh and the stench of burning propellant. The missile struck just beneath and between the Terminator’s legs, exploding in a larger and louder detonation than the one before.
Earl and Ten watched the burning Terminator fly through the air to crash, a short distance away, into one of the concrete support pillars that held up the overpass. From his field pack, Earl pulled out an RPG of his own.
The Terminator was up immediately, its body now an odd combination of black burned flesh and silvery undercarriage. It turned an eye—only one was still red and glowing—toward Earl and Ten, and began running…but not toward them. It moved off at an angle away from the two men, keeping its cover behind successive support pillars.
“It knows where it’s going,” Earl said.
“Dammit.” Ten grabbed the mike on his lapel. Now they didn’t have enough time to fiddle with field phones and key in text messages. “Hell-Hound One to Starling, bug out, repeat bug out. You have about sixty seconds.” He began running—not after the Terminator, but in a direct line toward the Eosphor Technologies building. Maybe he and his Hell-Hounds could get within line of sight of the building before the Terminator reached it; maybe they could exceed the values set up for its self-preservation protocols and cause it to turn against them instead of the others. Maybe.
Breathing heavily, Earl Duncan ran in his wake.
® Used under license. ™and text copyright © 2003 IMF Internationale Medien und Film GmbH & Co. 3 Produktions KG.