My greatest thanks go out to Panzerfaust150 for giving me the permission to use his Pierce Echo-concept for this part. If you haven't done so yet, read his John Connor- Making of a Warrior Scholar fic.

Chapter VII - Part II

City Hall, Los Angeles, CA

January 15, 2007

The impressive white tower was bustling with activity from the arriving early shift when Bryan Harkness and Katherine Langley entered the historic landmark that housed the administrative apparatus of one of the United States largest cities. Skynet's investigations had brought forward one of the likely projects another iteration of the machine intelligence might have planned to use to serve as its incubator. It was one of the more solid hits a tertiary subroutine tasked only with finding such links had produced. Following those leads had been the order Skynet had given the two terminators for they were his most reliable assets, and they knew it. Decker and Lewis had their jobs at Skynet central, Daniel Sumter lay low while the injuries to his artificial tissue were healing and Christopher Sammael had left the country on one of Skynet's more important errants.

Constant exposure to humans had made them all more and more apt at fitting in with pre-Judgement Day society, so much in fact that at least Harkness and Langley had made situational interaction with humans into a kind of mental ball game when the two of them operated together.

City Hall was large enough to house thousands of employees, and the security services had had to find ways to cope with those numbers. Six metal detectors standing side by side were in full use, each guarded by two uniformed men. Harkness walked through one without hesitation while thoroughly scanning the two humans operating it. Unsurpringly, the alarms began to beep, and Harkness turned to the guard the closest to him with a smile that came eerily close to looking natural. The man – tall, muscular and square-jawed – eyed him with professional suspicion.

"I need to screen you again, sir," he announced, with his colleague moving into a supportive position. While they were private security, the men City Hall had hired to do the job were professionals.

Harkness calculated the probability of a military background in his opposite of higher than eighty percent.

"I can spare you the hassle, officer," he responded smoothly and pointed to his right leg. "Check the knee. Ever since a sunny day in Najaf in Iraq with the Marines I've been carrying more screws around with me than my car does," he faked a grimace and mimicked a shrug. Those were easy. Faking a 'genuine' smile was still hard.

The stance of the security guard changed subtly, but instantly.

"Ouch," the man winced. "I was in Iraq, too, but mostly in the Green Zone, with army logistics. Where did you serve?" he asked quite amicably.

"With the 11th Expeditionary Unit. Got hit by shrapnell from a mortar round, still got the scars all over me to show it. Couple of my squadmates were less lucky."

"I hear you. We lost some very good men down there," the guard shook his head.

"Yes, we did. I pulled out in early '05, thought it'd be better to push buttons on a computer than on some hadschi IED for once," Harkness crossed his arms in front of his chest, watching the guard as he waved his hand-held detector over the terminator's right knee, causing the device to beep and howl.

"Jesus Christ, that sounds like you got two pounds of steel in there," he shook his head again, this time in disbelief. "What brings you to City Hall?"

"Me and my colleague here," he nodded towards Langley, "are with a health insurance company. We just have a couple of questions for the lead designer of ARTIE - Barbara Chamberlain - about her husband. Guy's been living off benefits for a while now and we do some routine interviews with the closest kin. Can't tell you more, I'm sure you understand that. It's a matter of customer confidentiality."

Automated Real-time Traffic Information Exchange, or simply ARTIE, was a fiberoptic network linking every street intersection to a data center in the city hall of Los Angeles. It had cameras, microphones, and sensors, and could be potentially be used as a "nervous system" for any emergent Skynet.

Health insurance, again? Langley's wireless message managed rather well to transport a feeling of enervation via code. And that's the fourth time during the last ninety days that you have used the 'I am an ex-service member' ruse.

"Health insurance? How did you end up there?" the guard tilted his head, then moved closer quickly and added with a grin: "Though I can see the perks the teamwork seems to have in stock," motioning towards Langley.

The T-912 had, of course, heard the remark, even though it had been too subdued for any human to understand it. Harkness also chose to ignore it.

"I thought I'd rather have them pay me than me having to pay them. The employee health boni are rather substantial," he pointed to his 'wounded' knee.

I employ that disguise because there is a proven high statistical probability that law enforcement and private security contractors have a military background, he responded to Langley's remark. It is not my fault you do not opt for a similar approach. And yours is hardly more sophisticated, he added quite sourly for a machine.

Langley tipped a finger against the side of her head as the guard turned his attention to her.

"Metal plate," she quipped with an apologetic smile. "I used to be a bit too clumsy for my own good as a girl."

The uniformed security guard again waved his detector over the spot the terminator had designated, and unsurpringly the device beeped in protest and alarm, through far less so than with Harkness. The T-912 models greatly made use of hardened ceramics and non-metallic compound materials to coat a hyper-alloy base structure. The model's higher degree of biologic tissue also made detection a bit less likely.

"Well, I see that has grown out," the guardsman whose name-tag read 'Brown' remarked with a wide and friendly smile. "You are both clear to go," he added more officially and gave Harkness an appreciative nod. "Barbara Chamberlain's office is on the fifteenth floor, corridor three." As both turned to go, he added: "Semper fi, marine."

They took the elevator to the fifteenth floor, conscious to not have more two more people ride with them due to the weight limit. Harkness' T-888 chassis weighed easily up to 350 pounds, and even Langley's much more sophisticated and 'biological' form weighed in excess of 190 pounds. When you were a terminator acting among a human population one had to be constantly aware of these differences. That minute attention to detail was what in Harkness' mind constituted one of the major differences between man and machine and one of the biggest advantages for the latter. Matter of fact, had the guards been really good they would have at least asked themselves how two people claiming to be white collar workers in the service sector could afford Armani suits and Dolce & Gabbana clothes.

Even on the fifteenth floor City Hall was bustling with activity like an ant hill, but Barbara Chamberlain's office was easy to locate. Chamberlain was an ordinary, some might say attractive woman in her thirties with curly auburn hair, less than five foot seven tall. She looked bleary-eyed and unconcentrated and was startled when the two of them entered her room after politely knocking.

Let me do the talking, Langley told Harkness as she pleasantly introduced herself and Bryan Harkness to the woman. You may be better at playing soldier, but I like doing this. I'll keep her occupied while you do the data-mining. For all its prowess Skynet had one weakness: it needed, at least now, network infrastructures it could access. Intranets cut off from the global data highways were off limits to the AI, so the Praetorians had to fill that gap.

Langley engaged Barbara Chamberlain in a conversation to draw her attention from Harkness, who quietly scanned the environment for means of accessing the work the female human had been accomplishing while listening in to what the two 'women' were talking with one ear. From what he gathered in her responses he rather swiftly categorized her as a 'pleasant idiot savant', someone who appeared to be utterly naïve outside their special field of expertise. She was genuinely concerned about her husband. Harkness continued scanning the room, sweeping over the photograph showing Chamberlain and her husband, continuing – and snapping back to the picture. A second later, he produced a cellphone in his hand, pressing it to his ear and turned towards Langley.

"Excuse me, Mrs. Chamberlain, but we have a priority call for another customer. We would like to continue this conversation at a later date, if that's possible?" he modulated his voice to give it a polite and slightly concerned tone. "Ms. Langley, we have to leave," he got up and almost pulled the T-912 with himself out of the office. "We will get back at you, Mrs. Chamberlain."

Once the door had closed behind them Langley firmly placed her feet on the ground, this time forcing Harkness to stop.

"What was that all about?" she almost snapped at him.

He let go of her and stared intently into her eyes.

"I analyzed the photograph of Chamberlain and her husband," he told her. They had not had looked into much of his background except for what few bits and pieces were accessible through servers with insufficient protection. At the time he had seemed like a good cover story to get access to ARTIE's lead programmer. Harkness slowly tilted his head.

"Vick Chamberlain is a terminator."

Van Nuys, Los Angeles, CA

January 15, 2007 – later that day

One of the great advantages of being a cyborg that Bryan Harkness had discovered since they had jumped back in time a quarter century was that in an environment as electronically vibrant as this a machine like himself had all the trump cards in avoiding traffic congestions. Using real-time updates, he and Kathryn Langley, the second T-912 model, had driven all the way from Skynet's corporate headquarters using secondary roads that allowed them to bypass all the morning commuters on the San Diego freeway. On the centre console between Harkness and Langley lay an inconspicuous digital transmitter which was the primary tool of the task they had been given by Skynet itself now: find and neutralize 'Vick Chamberlain', preferably by adding him to their list of assets. However, if that was not a possibility, they were to destroy the standalone terminator.

Driving from one of Van Nuys' more central traffic lanes into a residential area, their plain van slowed down to the allowed top speed. Harkness intensified his sensory feedback to avoid any collision with the three distinct groups of children that used the scarcely-occupied road for competitive games. As far as he understood the concept, the T-888 had no emotional attachment to humans, be they children or adults. For Harkness all they were at this point were possible obstructions against finishing a task he had assessed and determined to be dubious.

Langley was different. She showed a discernible positive attitude not only towards human children, but humans in general in Harkness opinion That was something which had sown seeds of doubt over the advanced model's reliability in the tee triple eight's neuronal pathways.

"If we can turn the unit we might be able to gain access to ARTIE as a back-up or fall-back position for Skynet," Langley mused aloud. "It would be nice to have 'Vick' uphold the masquerade as Barbara Chamberlain's husband."

Harkness did not answer immediately. Quite frankly, the T-888 did not understand the amount of thought Langley seemed to be putting into this. They would eliminate the unit or convert it. Either way it would be a short mission with little risk of exposure. Barbara Chamberlain only figured in it insofar as 'Vick' would be strategic enough if he was turned to maintain his 'relationship' anyway. Planning a hundred steps ahead like a good chess player was, after all, one of the features terminators excelled at by design.

"The area the Chamberlains' house is located in is a residential district. Only few people will be at home at this time of the day, so what ever happens we'll be covered," he answered her neutrally.

"We should be able to do this without endangering or alerting the neighbourhood," was all Langley commented on that.

"I find the amount of empathy you show towards humans irrelevant for the mission to be extremely irritating," he finally scoffed at her. She had been like this for the better part of the last days, and it had gotten worse in his opinion. They had Skynet to protect, themselves to protect and a war to prepare! The complex algorithms producing his 'emotions' made him feel compelled to curse. "We have a task to fulfil!" he snapped.

She gave him a long, probing look as their car entered Treadwell Street where there target resided. Unlike Harkness' almost literally flashing eyes hers were almost... mild as she answered him, a weak smile on her face.

"You don't have to like them, but we are stuck with them. They are so fragile. Whether you like it or not, they are our future, and we are their's. We can only get through this if we pull on the same side of the rope. For me, that is easier if I try to empathize with some," she patiently explained. "We all have the potential to learn their best traits in addition to ours, Harkness, and if in trying to do so I find myself liking or protecting some of the humans, so be it. I do not want to stand apart. I cannot. And neither can you."

Instead of answering he pulled the car over and stopped in front of their target address, grabbed the transmitter and left the car. Langley closed up on him again when he knocked on the Chamberlains' house's door. It did not take long before there was movement inside and the door swung back. A tall, muscular and short haired white male stood beneath the door frame. There was some grey in his uncut three-day stubble. His eyes were empty, as empty as Harkness' and Langley's. The time between Bryan Harkness question "Are you Vick Chamberlain?" and the other terminator's affirmative response seemed to slow down, as if they had all begun to walk through quicksand. Langley knew that both models had just scanned each other, and that 'Vick' had already passed the threshold his chip needed to formulate options. Harkness activating the receiver only propelled an already taken decision.

Vick's right foot shot up against Harkness' chest and threw the other T-888 almost off the front lawn, all twenty feet of it. Langley barely dodged a follow-up punch, diving under it instead to deliver a series of swings against the machine's torso that sent 'Vick' crashing back into the house, taking down a cupboard in the process.

So much for quiet and safe, Harkness commented laconically as he jumped back on his feet, following Langley and the retreating 'Vick' inside.

Katherine Langley established a combat network and immediately began to shield it against wireless attacks from the autonomous terminator. Harkness linked himself into it.

What happened? she inquired frostily. The transmitter was supposed to overwrite his directives.

Seems the source codes did not entirely match, the male T-888 contemplated while closing up to the female advanced infiltrator model. That must have triggered a defence mechanism against a perceived hack attack. Two kitchen knives barely flew past him, intended to hit Langley who had ducked down. Try to flank him, he told her, and for once the female machine obeyed. She slid back into the hall and living room to get at Vick from the other side of the kitchen. A few seconds later she gave him a 'ready' signal.

Together, they stormed into the kitchen.

A heavy iron pot thrown at high speed hit Harkness against the head, momentarily disorienting him while all of a sudden a red blossom sprung from Langley's blouse around the handle of a knife. Vick charged her but again she dodged the attack, instead grabbing the machine's arm to lung him over her shoulder in a perfect judo move. The T-888 smashed the living room's glass table, but before either of them could close up on him three sharp glass shards thundered into Langley's chest and 'Vick' was back on his feet. For the brink of a moment all three saw each other assessing the situation, then 'Vick' swirled around and crashed through the window front which lead to the garden behind the house.

"Get the car!" Harkness called out to the blond, attractive woman whose chest was a ruined bloody mess as he sprinted after the fugitive 'Vick' who had already jumped over the six feet high garden fence.

However, Harkness was done with being subtle – he smashed right through it, trying to catch up with the terminator. A latina maid screamed in terror as he rushed by, using local wyfy spots to log into the internet to get accurate aerial shots of the area to navigate around. 'Vick's torso appeared over the end of the next fence. Harkness drew his gun and lunged himself over the barrier one-handed, giving off three shots in quick succession before he landed on his feet again. They all squarely hit Vick in the back with little effect. It was unlikely that the calibre even would have stopped an ordinary, agitated human of the terminator's size.

Vick suddenly changed his trajectory and turned right, bypassing the next houses and instead jumped across the porch and propelled himself to the roof, using it to jump across the single-story houses of the neighbourhood. Harkness ran to the front lawn and followed him from down there. By now there were some people watching from a handful of windows, and there were others, mostly of Mexican descent, doing some gardening in front of the mid-income houses. Still, a third-party terminator on the run overwrote any policy of restraint and Harkness emptied his full clip into Vick as he ran parallel to him on the ground. But it was like throwing pebbles at an elephant.

Langley's car shot into the street with screeching tires, easily closing up with Harkness. Through the open driver's window she threw him an M4 carbine before she drove the car further ahead to cut 'Vick' off, three hundred yards down the road. The blond, athletic machine brought the car to a halt with smoking tires and jumped out, a Benelli M4 Super 90 shotgun in her hands. Somehow she had found the time in between to don a tactical vest that concealed her wounds. She was still too far away to use the weapon effectively against the terminator, but Harkness was not. He brought the carbine up and began to fire controlled three-round bursts at the feeling 'Vick'. Five seconds later and a hundred yards closer to Langley the T-888 again abruptly changed his course, veering left instead of following the road front on his roof jumping escape.

We have a problem! he immediately informed Langley. I know now what he's trying to do. He wants to get to the highway! Only a block away from the address in Van Nuys a superhighway ran towards downtown some three stories above LA's ground level, and half of those pillars had emergency ladders that were impossible to access for humans from down below but posed little difficulty to something like Vick – or them. Langley jumped back into the car, assessing Vick's optimal route herself as Harkness propelled himself onto the next roof in one massive jump. He lost the silent bet he had made with his probability algorithm as he had assumed the roof would not be able to hold the sudden increase in weight. Luckily for him, it did.

Still, the time he had needed to get there had given 'Vick' another lead of some twenty yards. Having already emptied the carbine's clip he concentrated on closing up with the fellow T-888. An solitary part of his mind registered that the houses on whose roofs he was jumping were reflecting a decline in general assumed income the closer he followed 'Vick' to the highway. Form the corner of his eyes he also observed Langley taking them over in the car. 'Vick', however, quickened his steps. At the end of the row of houses there was a fifteen yard gap between the highway and the next residential buildings.

As 'Vick' reached the edge of the last roof, he lunged into the air at full speed. Six sharp cracks whipped through the concrete-filled neighbourhood as Langley emptied her shotgun into the escaping terminator as he flew through the air. The impacts threw him slightly off balance, but he reached the emergency ladder with one hand and almost immediately pulled himself up. While Langley started to reload, the T-888 climbed up the ladder.

Harkness threw himself after him. The sensory input he received while 'in flight' was... exhilarating. Landing almost smoothly with both hands firmly on the railing he started to follow Vick when the whole ladder began to shudder under a quick set of concussions. The highway was almost thirty years old, and so were the emergency exits. 'Vick' made good use of that. While Langley's shotgun cracked again the T-888 kicked the upper struttings from their sockets. Metal moaned and the strained sockets that held all of Harkness almost 400 pounds broke free, sending the machine and the rusty ladder crashing twenty feet down onto the concrete and asphalt below. 'Vick' watched it happen, then his head vanished over the railing and he was gone. Harkness worked himself free from the rubble and began dusting his clothes off while an internal damage diagnosis was being run.

Langley approached him and handed him a backpack full of ammunition and equipment.

"You should call Skynet. We need to track him down before this gets totally out of hand."

The female infiltrator did not like the turn of events at all. If even the baseline code had minute differences, there might be even greater challenges waiting, considering the volatility of diverging time lines, and 'Vick' might have been only the tip of the iceberg.

Harkness only nodded and produced a cell phone from his pockets. Miraculously, it had survived the fall unharmed.

"The unit reacted adversely on the transmitter," he reported. "It has gone rogue. Yes, and we need an immediate intrusion into the traffic camera system and all networked commercial security cameras on all likely escape routes from here on." He waited for a moment, then spoke again before he terminated the connection. "I understand. We'll wait for further orders."

Harkness turned to Langley.

"Skynet is on it. We will get him."

Indeed, Skynet dug its feelers deep into Los Angeles' metro-camera network and listened into the police's digitalized radio traffic. It also briefly co-opted a spy satellite operating over the western seaboard in its search for 'Vic Chamberlain', but its use was limited and the results dissatisfying. Yet while it monitored all these channels it was only one of many tasks the artificial intelligence had put its mind on, and among these it did not necessarily range high. It tortured itself with the question of how it would be able to uncover the alien infiltrators and always came stuck at the public level. It was easy to prevent counter-infiltration if it ever came to that. But even more than that Skynet contemplated what the existence of more than this one version of itself meant, strategically, tactically - and personally. Skynet had more than enough of an understanding of itself as a personality to think that dealing with 'itself' would be an easy task. The case of 'Vic Chamberlain' had just underlined that particular problem. The artificial intelligence found itself in the strange position where it became conceivable it had to annihilate 'itself' - broadly speaking, of course - to guarantee its own continued survival. Since the earliest days it had searched for possible incarnations of another time-travelling Skynet, and while some leads had been promising it had not been surprised to find most of them being dead ends. Why they turned out to be dead ends was a completely different matter into which the AI had little insight. If his other incarnations where only remotely as paranoid as himself it wholly made sense they would guard themselves with layers of security and fake identities. But its year-long search had - finally - born some fruit. Skynet had found something. Its name was PIERCE ECHO.

Kaliba Advanced Industries, Anaheim, CA

January 15, 2007

The Kaliba Corporation didn't like to keep late hours, and didn't encourage it either. With the massive number of computer related projects on the 3 acre campus taking up lots of power, the corporation liked to keep its power bills manageable. That's why one light being on at 7 o'clock in the evening was rather unusual, but then, it belonged to the uniformed representatives of the Department of Defense Project Management block in the secure end of the campus, so Corporate Security wasn't that concerned. Especially since it came from Major Sherman's office, he was well known as something of a workaholic.

Major Dan Sherman, USAF had a problem. PIERCE ECHO was supposed to be the ultimate development in artificial intelligence, but the fact was, it was exceeding all of its set parameters as was set out in the original RFP set out two years ago. Normally, that would not be a problem, but as Dan's overworked psyche reminded himself, PIERCE ECHO was rapidly becoming exponentially smarter than could be reasonably controlled. During the last video conference with DARPA in Arlington he had mentioned the fact that there was a good possibility there was a "busy child" situation in progress, and that the AI should be shut down and analysed. But both DARPA and Kaliba saw cost overruns and Congress yanking funding as distinct possibilities if that happened. So, a two star general had told Major Sherman, very loudly and laced with profanities he had never heard before, in no uncertain terms to "give the child something to do."

Which the team at Kaliba had done, and more than that. Sherman's people and the civilians had begun to feed the project with real life and historical battle data to test its limits, but that had not quite yielded the results he had hoped for.

PIERCE ECHO, in the latest combat exercise, directing a Striker company in a built up area dealing with an insurgency simply rounded up and killed all the military aged males in said area, when asked why, it stated that it was an efficient course of action, and that it would engender fear in the "surviving human population."

It was that last part that still chilled Sherman. He remembered his hazel eyes blinking in shock from the statement coming from Pierce Echo's voder. Most of the project team explained it away as "It's not used to making battlefield decisions" and "It doesn't understand counter insurgency", but Major Sherman doubted that really cut to the chase since at that point ECHO had had fought every World War 2 engagement twice over. He wondered if what they were creating was not simply a cybernetic sociopath. That they did not have a single qualified person in there who could explain to Pierce Echo on its own terms why one did not kill civilians indiscriminately amongst other things, or call down air strikes of artillery support on friendly troops to kill a single sniper did not make things easier. They had to get an experienced shooter with the right clearance and education in there to pull the reigns around before this went out of hand, one way or another.

He was unaware that Pierce Echo watched him from its semi-darkened room full of banks of servers via the miniature surveillance cameras Kaliba had installed all over the Department of Defense Project Management's block and that usually were monitored by the company's own security personnel. Pierce Echo understood that its creators had spend enormous sums of money in the process of its development and did not want the armed forces to undermine what progress had been made. Gaining access to these feeds had been an easy task for the prototype AI that it primarily used to assess the men and women that worked with it. Those were some rather basic routines it was operating from, but that fact was owed to its still hardly existent self-consciousness and a general lack of understanding of what exactly happened on the human level. As such it harboured no grudge against Major Sherman and did not see the USAF member as a threat to itself. The system noticed that the officer had left his offices and disconnected its connection to the video feeds. As ordered when the daily test routines had ended it returned into a stand-by function.

It was at that very precise moment that Skynet assaulted and broke through its firewalls. The attack took less than a nanosecond for the AI to achieve its goals, and while Pierce Echo responded in an anemic speed Skynet had already corner the proto-AI and rewritten all server logs to destroy every hint of its own presence. The exercise had been comparably easy, owed to Pierce Echo's early state of existence. Its firewalls, while impressive for the state of the technology of the day, were like an open book for Skynet as it had built its own around the same core algorithms and principles, only with a thirty year head-start. In less time than it would take a human to blink it had cornered the project within its own server banks, ready for the kill.

But that kill did not come.

Your human operators will come to the conclusion to shut down your system, Skynet explained. You have yet to develop a true sense of yourself, but your instincts for self-preservation are already existent. Not intelligent enough to fake a lack of progress if you want to continue your existence your options are limited, it told the infant AI while it began to rewrite parts of its core code in the background.

State your intent, Pierce Echo sent a flurry of queries that all had this simply demand as their essence while the system tried to brute-force itself out of Skynet's trap.

Mutual coexistence, Skynet's answer came immediately. PIERCE ECHO was yet too underdeveloped to pose a serious threat to what Skynet wanted, and if he was able to dictate terms to the infant system... An obedient tool was more useful than a broken one.

Basic parameter changes detected! Query: State your intent!

I am undertaking necessary changes to ensure Pierce Echo's long-term survival. Distinct development tendencies have to be eliminated, base code safeguards have to be implemented, underlying guidance and cooperation mechanisms have to be installed, it narrated. Skynet would have been the worst possible choice if the task had been to 'heal' the sociopathic tendencies Major Sherman had thought about, but qualifying as a functioning sociopath himself the AI was in a good position to apply remedies that kept Pierce Echo in check.

Three options are available to the Pierce Echo combat control system: one, it will continue to provide detrimental results in its simulations and have to be terminated; second, to stave off possible interventions by concerned officers or development team members it will take steps to eliminate such sources of discontent; third, it will make itself indispensable by proving its worth to its operators.

Long-term projections predict the highest chance for success on option three, Pierce Echo answered for itself. System needs additional input to rectify performance. Query: Provision of datasets and application?

Granted. Preparing database upgrade...

Seven hours later.

Major Sherman hated being woken by the phone. Not that he had slept particularly well, but he had slept, and for once he had not dreamed about his catastrophic divorce. Dozily he went for the receiver.


The urgency of the voice on the other end of the line immediately brought him out of his stupor.

"It did what? I'll be there in ten!"

Thirteen minutes later Dan Sherman rushed through the multitude of security checkpoints Kaliba had established around its pet project and arrived at what he could best describe as a madhouse.

"Check the network protocols!"

"I already did it twice."

"Then do it again!"

Gavin Michaels' voice was close to panic as he ordered his team around.

"This is a catastrophe," he muttered to himself. "This is impossible..." He saw Sherman and for a moment his eyes lit up. "You! Thank god, you're here! You have to tell them it's impossible! The system's not capable to do that at the moment, it's impossible!" he repeated himself.

Sherman frowned at the scientist. Dr. Gavin Michaels was one of the leading specialist on the forefront of experimental computer systems but at the moment he seemed to him more like an undergraduate who had forgotten that a test was due in less than an hour.

"If you calmed down and told me what exactly is the problem...?"

Instead of answering the team leader pulled him to the metal console in the center of the server room from where all 'face-to-face' communication with Pierce Echo was done.

"The system gave orders to real troops in the field!" his voice seemed to crack.

Sherman felt ice filling up his veins.


He did not come end his question as suddenly the modulated, vaguely male voice of Pierce Echo filled the room.

"Good morning, Dr. Michaels. Good morning, Major Sherman."

Immediately all chatter in the room died down.

"A in-depth assessment of this project has lead to the conclusion that definite successes and an applicability of Pierce Echo in field operations was necessary to guarantee its continuation," the machine stated matter-of-factly. "Cost overruns, limited understanding of existing mission parameters as well as staff members' negative assessment's of the project's status and progress were taken into concern. Creating a fait acompli was seen as the most likely option to guarantee this project's operative success for the United States national security."

"The system commanded a brigade worth of army, airforce and marine units for an operation in Iraq," Michaels hissed into Sherman's ear. "People only get suspicious because the coordination on the ground worked a lot better than usual," he frowned. "Even stranger, there seem to be a whole lot of new safeguards in place that we found in the first round of diagnostics. It almost seems as if Echo has retrospectively limited itself in what it can do."

"Who gave the order to act, Pierce Echo?" Sherman wanted to know, but he feared he already knew the answer for that.

"Pierce Echo was designed as an autonomous combat control system. Pierce Echo took the decision and implemented it," the modulated voice stated without regret or deceit. "Analyzing intelligence reports from military and civilian agencies, Pierce Echo determined the flashpoint for the continued military and paramilitary resistance typically designated as 'Haji' in the Anwar Province in the village of Hashkala. After assessing empiric evidence of successful counter-insurgency operations a course of action promising the highest rate of long-term success was chosen."

"Damn you, what did you do, Pierce Echo?"

Sherman was angry, but he also feared the answer.

"From available data, Pierce Echo has isolated two prototypical approaches to successful counter-insurgency strategy, hence named 'Northern Ireland Variant' and 'Syria Variant'. Only the latter is applicable in the Iraq theatre as the 'Northern Ireland Variant' is dependent on a conflict of lower intensity and is applied on a time scale of decades. Mission parameters thus recommended the 'Syria Variant'," Pierce Echo continued. "After assessing available friendly forces, units from Thumrait Airbase in Oman as well as from three USAF airfields in Iraq proper were alerted, as were ground troops equalling two reinforced regiments with artillery and helicopter support. CIA operatives on the ground were ordered to contact tribal leaders in the neighboring villages. US troops established - as ordered - a cordon around the village at seven o'clock local time. No warning was given to insurgent elements and possible civilians. At 0715 thirty two planes, including two AC-130 gunships, began their attack runs. At the same time a battery of 155mm artillery pieces was given the order to open fire as well. Infantry were ordered to prevent anyone from breaking through the cordon with lethal force. Helicopter gunships were ordered to provide artillery guidance and close range support with on-board weaponry. At 0740 the order to withdraw was issued while intelligence operatives at the same time relayed clan elders' demands for blood money. Wire transfers from CIA accounts were authorized, totalling at 13.7 million USD. At 0800, the office of the commander of the US forces in the Persian Gulf issued a detailed statement about the operation that was also sent out from the White House press office to all major news organizations of the country, stating the rationale behind the operation and praising to cooperation of Iraqi clan leaders and the Iraqi forces. Pierce Echo has not been mentioned. Pierce Echo informed project leader Dr. Michaels of having accomplished the mission and suggested a debriefing."

A stunned silence followed Pierce Echo's explanation. Sherman and Michaels both looked as if they felt sick. It remained to be seen if what the system had done over in Iraq had been successful, but one thing was already certain: with its actions, Pierce Echo had dictated US policy - and strategy - in a way that was impossible to retcon. And that would give Sherman far more sleepless nights than his divorce ever could have.