Title: Serenity Point V2.0
Author: A.P. Stacey.
Summary: When battle lines are drawn unexpectedly early, Sarah comes to realise the enemy of your enemy is not your friend.
Author’s note: This fic, like my previous one, took a life of its own. And if the chronology of events is somehow confusing, forgive me. Comments and feedbacks always appreciated. If you take the time to read this, please take the time to send me some feedback. All works involving sentient robots, homicidal supercomputers and future resistance fighters arriving back in the past naked are owned and profited from by FOX Television Networks, its subsidiaries, divisions and slaves. Derek's flashbacks to the future (There's a paradox) are in italics.
Comment & Credit @ AP Stacey
The twisted trusses of melted, blackened steel rose like grotesque, bald tree stumps stretching high into a night sky so clouded and thick, that not a single star shone through and what little horizon was discernible was illuminated only by the occasional gout of flame. Debris exploded into the air, as concussive missiles launched from nowhere buried themselves deep into the scorched mud and detonated with a rolling bang, like the clap of thunder following lightning.
Over the barrages, the steady thumping of heavy artillery provided the bass notes of a symphony of offensive death, that included the chattering wails of anti-personnel weaponry that could rend a man’s skeleton of its flesh and muscle in a single sweep. Powerful tunnels of blinding light scanned the scarred landscape, as the deafening roar of turbine engines marked Hunter-Killers as they powered overhead and unleashed sporadic destruction from chin-mounted auto-cannons.
Derek Reese, acting Commanding Officer of the Fighting New Mexico 24th felt his legs buckle as the cratered ground underneath his boots heaved and shuddered under the impact of withering missile fire. Throwing his arms out in a doomed bid to keep his balance, the fresh-faced youngster fell forwards, his rifle and forearms disappearing into a thick quagmire of mud and brown water that he resisted only until a screeching Hunter-Killer’s wild firing overhead brought his body and face firmly down to meet the sludge.
Motionless, the Corporal patiently waited for the automated flying machine to continue its killing further north, raising his head slightly as the whine of its oversized turbine engines faded to be replaced by the loud thundering of artillery, which seemed the only sound powerful enough to break through the tinnitus that had virtually deafened him. For several moments Reese could no more remember his own name, than he could recall his mission or the reason he was slinking between the shattered city husks of a civilisation all but made extinct.
Derek spluttered as he felt a powerful hand grab him by the scruff of his uniform’s neck and pull the dazed young man up from the mud. Fumbling with a rifle now slick with sludge and water, he broke free of the hold and rolled to meet the soft ground with his back. His jaw set tightly Reese brought the muzzle of the weapon to bare, knowing that he would have only a single chance to destroy the metal bastard that had given him a helping hand.
Desperate eyes glanced first at the rifle which spat not a single bullet in his defence, even as he squeezed the trigger for a second time, and then at the decidedly tan-coloured face staring back at him without a hint of steel malice, and more than a little amusement.
“The Mark Seven Infantry Pulse Rifle is a fine weapon Corporal!” The voice boomed with mocking and the slightest edge of command authority. “It’ll fire in temperatures as low as minus fifteen degrees Celsius and in excess of fifty! It has a stock made of solid composite plastic that’ll take a Chrome Job’s lickin’ and keep on tickin’. What it is not, however, is your mother. By the looks of it that weapon’s been fired fewer times than I think you’d like to admit to me or your mother. Your real one.”
Wiping the perspiration from his eyes Reese suppressed the urge to sigh as his gaze settled on the man bearing the epaulettes of a Captain looming over him. He was a good deal older than Derek, sporting a week’s worth of stubble and a decade’s worth of cuts and pockmarks in his flesh. The armour he wore was only superficially similar to the Corporal’s - of the same original manufacture but customised and repaired many times over.
Struggling to his feet Reese offered the older man a textbook salute while making an effort to clear some of the mud from his tunic sleeves. Receiving an incredulous look the Captain responded with a sloppy salute of his own. “My mother’s dead sir,” He replied with a nervous shrug.
The Officer’s chapped lips twisted into a grin, a gauntleted hand slapping Reese square in the back with considerable force. “Unless the constant battle, killing and survival have finally caught up with me and sent me off the deep end you look fairly alive to me, Corporal. What is this, fourth run out?”
“Third mission sir,” Derek replied, wincing as a particularly close missile impact rained earth and dirty water down on the two men. “Passing out from Odessa Bunker to Serenity Point; intelligence monkeys have wind that those metal bastards know where Serenity Point is and are planning a bloodbath. I was supposed to reach SP and prepare to evacuate.”
“It’s been a long time since I was young enough to feel nerves son,” The Captain said evenly, “But it seems to me that Command is asking you green caps to save the world with a week’s fire training and some plastic chest armour. EVAC mission on your third trip out? I’d heard casualties were hitting us in deployments but I’d no idea we were sending out the babes … Where’s the rest of your squad?”
Reese’s dirty features twisted to form a scowl, his fingers still wiping away the slick mud from his rifle in an attempt to clear the jam. “No squad sir,” He replied with his gaze fixed on the firing chamber as he pushed out a thick glob of dirt. “Command said no cover available in this sector - too hot to move in reinforcements--”
“Too hot?” The officer boomed as the sky around him lit up with a half-dozen blossoming explosions. “They send a green cap to carry out an EVAC on his third combat mission, on his own, because the sector’s too hot? What the fuck are those brass monkeys up to? What the fuck is John Connor up to!”
Both men sprawled as the ground shuddered under another barrage of impact fire. Shouldering his rifle the grizzled officer grumbled and turned his attention back to his young charge. “Seems like you’ll need some help Corporal - Serenity Point you say?”
Derek nodded, his fingers gripping the barrel of his rifle nervously. “Serenity Point sir.”
“Name’s Razak,” the Captain muttered back as he broke into a crouched run behind a shattered and twisted frame of metal jutting out over the bleak landscape. Risking a glance over the shattered ridge the officer nodded in satisfaction and gestured for Reese to follow.
Derek’s eyelids parted slightly and immediately regretted opening, as the bright beams of a sun shining through a window, without curtains drawn, flooded his vision and brought a hand up to shield his face. Swallowing against a throat drier than the empty whiskey bottle standing watch on the night stand, the second surviving relative of the future saviour of mankind sat up slowly, the pounding of blood through his temples limiting any thought beyond the need to empty his bladder. Ignoring the whiff of alcohol that rose from his sweat-stained T-shirt and jogging bottoms, he pulled the door handle open roughly.
Leaning over the sink with his arms splayed, Derek fixed his bloodshot gaze on the unkempt, unshaven face staring back from the bathroom mirror. A sardonic smile appeared on the reflection as he recalled the dreams that visited him since his return to the past, without a single day’s respite or failure. Dreams that had never haunted his sleep even when that sleep was taken in a flooded foxhole, with the drone of Hunter-Killers overhead, and Chrome Jobs on foot - miles between the isolated underground bunkers that future-humanity called home.
Even though the threats facing him, and by extension the Connor Family were a bare percentage of the accumulated future might of the armies of Skynet that he had faced, fought and survived for a decade there was no denying that never before had Reese’s sanity so threatened to desert him. Now, when there was a chance to relax - for no matter how short a time - when there were moments he could pretend that Judgement Day and the effective extinction of Mankind could be avoided, hopelessness never seemed to hold such dominion over him.
Adjusting the shower temperature and peeling his T-shirt overhead his eyes settled on the mass of raised, crumpled scar tissue that marked the bullet wound that had so very nearly killed him. Pressing a finger against the wound he noted an absence of the feeling of pressure - the nerves that carried all sensations destroyed; torn apart by the single bullet of a thousand successfully dodged that on darker nights, in darker dreams he wished had given him the peace he longed for.
Climbing into the shower and feeling the near-scalding water wash away the regrets and overindulgences of the night before, Derek stretched out against the wall and shook his head ruefully.
He needed a drink.
“You’re wrong John; Bromine is a Group Seven element, in the Halogen Family. Atomic Number 35, the only non-metallic element existing in a liquid state at room temperature. It is a reddish-brown colour and--”
Although his eyes didn’t leave the textbook he was studying, John’s left hand rose upwards to cut off the Chemistry lecture that wasn’t requested or required. “I know that,” He interrupted with an irritated sigh, moving quickly before the confused look on his pseudo-sister’s face erupted into more questioning. Closing the textbook, he dropped the pen to the paper and turned to face his inquisitor.
“Define average for me.”
The beautiful, almost doll-like features of the Terminator-turned-protector known as Cameron focused, her head cocked slightly as if accessing information not immediately at hand. Lips slightly apart, eyes unfocused as though staring through the dining table and not simply at it. “Average, Noun and Adjective; a quantity, rating, or the like that represents or approximates an arithmetic mean.”
The robotic monologue faded to be replaced by a warm inflection. “Her golf average is in the 90s. My brother's average in science has gone from B to C this semester.”
“Right,” John enthused whilst suppressing the discomfort he always felt with the Terminator’s ability to switch effortlessly, between the emotionless automata he best remembered in the T-101 and the soft tones of a teenage girl, who should know nothing about robots from the future, or sentient computers, or the end of all things. “Since you know everything there is to know about Chemistry - more than the greatest minds of this time - scoring high on a High School science test isn’t one of your priorities.”
“Since I’m destined to be the saviour of all mankind,” He continued with a deliberate infusion of resignation and sarcasm, “The same test is pretty irrelevant to me. All it would achieve is bringing scrutiny that can be avoided. If we can avoid attention, we can avoid some problems.”
Leaning backwards, John steeled himself for the deluge of where, why and when that was sure to follow. It was with no small amount of surprise, that he heard Cameron thank him for explaining, watching her amend her answer to be similarly incorrect, before closing the jotter and offering him a disarmingly beautiful smile.
He suppressed the urge to sigh - Cybernetic organisms indeed.
Sarah tucked a handful of her raven locks back behind an ear, her lips fluttering as she blew a lungful of air out in exasperation. Glancing up from the bed she sat cross-legged upon, her eyes fell on the few items in the Spartan room apart from the bed; the secure gun crate underneath, and the file boxes full of the hundreds of pieces of paper and photos taken from the Resistance Safe House that posed another fifty questions for each one it answered.
As December had drawn in she’d suggested to John they relocate to one of the numerous holiday chalets available in the north of the country for a few days - as much to give them respite from their constant vigilance, as to throw Cromartie and whomever else sought them out off the Connor trail, although the response had been lukewarm. Of course when it came to protecting the boy who would become the man who would prevent the absolute extinction of humanity, there was no respite, no break or holiday.
Sarah felt that the illusion of respite was the next best thing, however and with John and Cameron’s High School entering a one-off winter shut-down to allow for planned expansion and renovation there seemed no real reason not to. The chilling snow and ice that covered the region and the way a person’s breathe floated like mist into the frozen sky, was as far-removed from the sandy heat of New Mexico as one could get.
Whether she could convince anyone to go was another matter entirely.
She would relished the change, although lately John seemed more relaxed and even Derek - from what little Sarah had seen of him in the last few days - had managed to keep his perquisite antagonistic relationship with Cameron calm, or calmer. There was only one person that seemed unchanged - their Terminator turned Princess-Protector.
Trust was something Sarah was no longer sure she could believe in. Of course she trusted her son - there was simply too much together that could not be destroyed, or corrupted or simply ignored to do otherwise. Even so, what trust could exist in a world where creatures of metal ignored the very wall of reality - time itself - and freely crossed history wearing deceiving masks of flesh? How could anyone be expected to trust when these merciless killers could take any guise and appearance?
The Metal Princess was an enigma wrapped in a conundrum, wrapped in a paradox. Fundamentally the enemy - a machine-agent of Skynet designed to aid it in the annihilation of the Human Race and with every facet of her body and programming optimised to deliver death and murder. A machine-agent that had managed to lose its reprogrammed purpose, hunting her son for a second time and so carry out the bidding of Skynet, despite the future John Connor’s best efforts and contingency plans.
It had only been the kindness, and faith of her son in the present that prevented all thoughts of Cameron being in the past tense. Despite this Sarah could not ignore that the Tin Miss had saved their lives on countless occasions; had battled Terminator units far stronger and more insidious than the original T-101 - defeated once and befriended once - that would undoubtedly have ended the survival hopes of the Human Race, years before their ultimate test.
When Cameron had first entered their lives, she was considerably easier for Sarah to understand. Her mannerisms always divided into two types - of the original Terminator persona, emotionless, cold and unwavering. Utterly loyal to the programming and the mission. Occasionally flashes of simulated smiles and nonsense sound bites mixed with pleasantries that would give the surface appearance of Humanity. Easy to differentiate and oppose.
Ignoring the uncomfortable images of her son forced to kill to defend her, Sarah knew the incident involving the Break-in, that had seen Cameron disabled by nothing less than a car bomb had fundamentally changed the Terminator. Whether chip damage, or a combination of other factors the line between her two behaviours had become blurred, meshed. It was no longer easy at all to see a Terminator masquerading as a young girl, and it became possible to imagine and see a psychopathic young girl. A vital difference, for one was a robot pretending to be Human, and the other …
Shaking the thoughts from her head physically, Sarah’s attention returned to the open box and the contents sprawled across her bed covers. Target suggestions, tactical reports and a hundred photos formed a chaotic pattern of which any component could signal a weakness in Skynet, or a deadly component that might take their lives in return for interference.
Casting a glance at the digital clock methodically counting down the few hours of the evening remaining, Sarah pulled the file box up from the carpet, and began to sweep the intelligence back into hiding for however long she could stomach relaxing without the accompanying guilt overwhelming her, and driving the woman back to sift through a thousand sheets of paper.
Amongst the ruffled single-sheets her gaze settled on a thick manuscript of a dozen pages stapled together. Conspicuous by its thickness and type face compared to the handwritten scribbles that constituted most of the intelligence at hand, Sarah placed it in her lap.
A faded monotone logo pulled at her attention and though badly copied and smudged, Sarah could identify it as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Her stomach knotted in apprehension, for the mother-turned-soldier did not need John, or anyone else versed in the modern age of technology to tell her the name of MIT was synonymous with progress and discovery - label words for Skynet and the future apocalypse she sought to avoid. The Department of Computer Sciences identifier seemed to explain the reason for the document’s interest to the resistance, without much more introduction.
Green eyes traversed the document as quickly as she could understand it - glossing over the names of River Tam, Caroline Young, Aluko Sonne and a number of others who were credited as a group for “A Discourse on the nature and concept of Advanced Electronic Awareness (AEA),” as the document identified itself. Sarah’s lips echoed the words softly as she struggled to comprehend just what the information on these pages meant in relation to their fight, and by proxy the fight of all the Free Earth to survive.
“ … The capacity of the Human Brain as a computational medium is unrivalled by anything yet created in the modern scientific world. It is the most capable and reliable evaluator of abstract information ever perceived. Where a computer can, nowadays, perform calculations well outside the Human capacity to manually achieve it operates in a strict world of binary - one and zero, black or white. While processor speeds increase and Operations Per Second (OPS) double with every passing year we simply make the answers to our calculations faster in their arrival. Our computers do not become more intelligent.”
Sarah frowned, trying to discern the relevant from the waffling and scientific indulgence of a group of youngsters with a flair for science, and tedious delivery.
“… It is a widely accepted scientific consensus that the next great breakthrough in computational speeds and capability will come with the first systems that imitate the Human Brain, and its capacity to think beyond simple facts to arrive at an abstract, or unexpected conclusion. This author sees evidence of this in former and current generations of automated Chess Computers, such as the Deep Blue.
“These machines break the fundamental rule of our current computer law - that they can create new data from previously absorbed information; that their source codes are not inviolable but constantly modified and improved and that also, paradoxically for a computer, can make errors with flawless information as a side-effect of the learning process as Humans are wont to do …”
Sarah felt the very blood in her veins slow to a crawl as the discourse began to refer to events that were very probably the vital building blocks of the Machines’ victory over Man. Flashes of the Turk, of Andy and his death, of her own hands as they destroyed the young man’s possessions and home, shortly before his very life itself was burned to nothing tore through her consciousness. Dropping the document to the bed she pushed up to standing and massaged her forehead with both hands - it being all she could do to resist tearing the paper apart.
Her son‘s voice reverberated from downstairs, breaking the internal monologue. “Mom! Do you want to burn something in the oven and then order Pizza, or just skip straight to the Pizza?”
Sarah felt her tension ease slightly, a small smile playing on her face. The document would have to be read, whether it made her uncomfortable or not. Skynet did not baulk from the business of ending humanity, and so the mother of the boy who represented the future would not refuse to read a couple of sheets of paper, irrespective of how damning they might end up being.
The matter at hand now however, was forcing her son to sit through a deliberately failed cooking attempt in punishment for forgetting that irrespective of his eventual position as Supreme Allied Commander of the Free Earth Forces, he would not be allowed to talk to his mother like that.
The dining room table was the centre of a four-point star of people surrounding grease-stained, flip-top pizza boxes spread haphazardly across the stained wood; in front of each a creased paper plate and an empty glass. Filtering in from an empty Living Room the mindless chatter of the television kept a silence from descending to become uncomfortable. Sarah suppressed the urge to grimace as she took another bite of the remains of the slice on her plate, noting absent-mindedly at how quickly it went from piping-hot to nauseatingly cold.
“How’s School?” She attempted nonchalantly. The raised eyebrow from her single son suggested that her attempt at idle conversation was obviously forced. Shrugging his shoulders and swigging the last of the bubbling cola from the bottle, John wiped the foam and crust crumbs from the corners of his mouth. “The usual. Hours of lectures, follow-up assessments, long-winded essays and then repeat until golden brown.”
“It was very educational,” Cameron added almost eagerly. “Today I learned about Venezuela.”
Sarah’s forehead frowned as she nodded, her eyes shifting between her single child and his “sister”. “That’s good to hear,” She added focusing on John. “Just remember to keep up appearances. If we don’t go looking for trouble, hopefully it’ll take longer to come looking for us.”
Glancing down at the pizza and shaking her head slightly the raven-haired woman pushed the paper plate away. “That might be easier said than done to be honest. It’s been months since the Air Force Chess Tournament and Andy - The Turk’s trail has gone cold and the more time that passes the more likely it is we’ll never see it again.”
Finishing the beer at hand and reaching for an unopened bottle Derek effortlessly removed the cap with a hiss and took a gulp. He scratched at the stubble shadowing his chin and placed the bottle down on the tabletop with a thump. “There’s no reason to think it’s even in the country any more. It’s been months - Hell, it could be anywhere in the world by now. We’ve lost it.”
“There’s been absolutely no mention of anything like The Turk on-line,” John added with a shake of his head and a frown of his own. “Shipping records, special insurance claims - If the Turk had been taken anywhere outside the U.S. or Canada there’d be some mention of it somewhere if not in name. It’s still in North America. I’m sure of it.
“I’ve been working on a search algorithm - something for the internet. I’m only in the preliminary design stage but if it works out it’ll be able to search mail and freight company records, government contractor databases, IT specialist agencies - anything that might provide a service, or produce something that would be of use to the people who have The Turk. We might not be able to find the computer itself, but we might be able to find the people who are servicing or maintaining it. It’s a very sophisticated piece of equipment and it has a lot of specialised requirements.”
A self-confessed woman of action, Sarah pushed the technical details and limitations to the side. “How long before you think it’ll be ready to search?”
John sighed, scratching at the back of his head with the top of the empty bottle held in his hand. “Difficult to say Mom - It’s something I’m doing in what spare time I have. School takes up most of the day and then I’ve got dozens of Hard Drives to search through manually. Throw in weapon training and the occasional day off and it’s not at the top of my priorities.”
“Do the best you can,” She answered after a moment’s hesitation. Sarah resisted the urge to press John to complete it quickly. The slightest hint of irritation in his voice served as a reminder of the pressure the young salvation of the Human Race was under. In recent weeks he had not so much accepted but adapted to resign himself to his assigned fate as the Supreme Commander of mankind’s freedom and she had been loathe to pile more burdens on him. He needed a rest like everyone else at the table.
Sarah’s eyes glanced over towards Cameron - almost everyone at the table, she amended. The sophisticated killing machine fashioned in the form of a striking young woman sat stiffly in the chair. Her back ramrod-straight, hands palm-down upon her thighs and eyes fixed on the pizza slice sitting upon her plate with only a single bite mark to spoil its completeness. The only glass at the table untouched and still quietly hissing with carbonated bubbles.
She waited for the Terminator to add her opinion to the mix - as she was oft to do in discussions regarding the mission or security. After several moments of silence save for the television’s discount offer on a brand new GMC Pick-up Truck, Sarah took matters into her own hand. “What’s your take on this?”
Cameron still did not look up from the table and it was at this point the older woman felt the familiar uneasiness rise in the deepest pit of her stomach - a twisting sense of fear regarding all things with sentience and metal. She opened her mouth to ask again when the guttural tone of Derek cut through the Terminator’s daydream and brought her sharp blue eyes level with the group’s. “Hey toaster - you going to contribute something, anything? Were you even listening?”
Sarah braced herself for the entire conversation to be replayed with the unnerving accuracy of each of their voices mimicked perfectly by the young woman. Instead her forehead creased to form a frown at the look of confusion in the machine’s blue eyes. “I wasn’t paying attention.”
Sarah quickly moved in to cut off the harsh words certain to come from Reese‘s opening mouth. They were certain not to be helpful or useful to the debate at hand. “John wants to design a search algorithm for the internet that might track down The Turk based on the type of service and equipment its owners might use or contract in.”
Cameron nodded “Thank you for explaining.” She turned towards the future leader of the Free Earth and offered the slightest smile which Sarah reconciled with the twisting of her stomach - so perfect, so genuine and warm; so surely replicated and mimicked. Software and programming, not real feeling. “I think it’s a good idea, John.”
Blue eyes switched their gaze to the mother of the saviour - the smile instantly dissolving into the blank, doll-like expression that had become the virtual trademark of the entire line of Human-mimicking Terminators. “I would like to do something too.”
Derek scoffed and gulped down the remains of the beer in the brown glass bottle. “How about you start on stripping down the rifles? I‘ve been asking you to calibrate the sniper scope for weeks now. You‘re supposed to be our resident authority on killing and you‘ve hardly picked up a weapon in days.”
The Terminator showed no signs of acknowledging Reece. “The Parents and Pupils Association are holding auditions for this year’s musical production. I would like to try out.”
Although Sarah’s mouth opened slightly in shock, her conscious mind saw the myriad reactions around the dinning table and the dichotomy of their fragile alliance. Almost immediately Derek had thrown the empty bottle to the floor to shatter loudly - rising to his feet quickly and jabbing a finger angrily in the direction of Cameron. Her son, John, his face painted with surprise quickly cocked his head to the side and allowed the briefest smirk to shine through. Tearing a section of crust from the remains of his slice he chewed on the pizza and reclined in his chair.
“Don’t be ridiculous!” Derek spat. “You’re a mechanical assassin designed from the bolts upwards for murder and espionage … Why am I even trying to explain? You’re a Terminator. A toaster. This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard and I’ve travelled through time!”
“I don’t see the problem,” John replied with total opposition to Reese in tone and idea. “Mom, you’re always banging on about being normal well this is a perfect chance to show just that. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but our lack of participation in anything extra-curricular, your failure to show at a single Parent-Teacher meeting and our total isolation from friends or neighbours is going to become an issue soon.
“It’s a small-time musical for old ladies and over-bearing parents who want their children to become stars. It’s months away anyway. Something tells me Cromartie isn’t scouring the local theatres and productions in case we’re hiding away in a production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat.”
“John!” Derek almost shouted, with as close to a look of horror as a man as war-weary and jaded as the former/current Commanding Officer of the Free Earth Forces could show. “You can’t be serious! She was trying to murder you practically yesterday and now you want to entertain her dream simulations of Broadway? This is madness! Sarah - tell me you’re not going to go along with this robot’s charade?”
Sarah wasn’t sure what to think. So many issues, questions and thoughts fought inside her mind for dominance. She would be a liar if she’d pretended her initial reaction wasn’t virtually the same as Derek’s - The very idea of a Terminator indulging in what could only be described as a hobby that didn’t involve murder, or deception seemed as alien as the concept that sentient machines from the future might one day travel back to the past, to threaten the future of Humanity.
And yet that was unequivocal fact.
Still, John’s words rang true. In an effort to make their family seem as humdrum and boring as possible she had gone too far to one extreme. Instead of appearing painfully Middle-American, the Connors appeared introverts, hermit-like and venturing out of their “cave” only when absolutely forced. Cameron was a deadly expert of combat and capable of surviving injuries and incidents that would leave a person broken in half, so she was more than capable of looking after herself. A small part of her was thankful it was not John asking for the same permission.
It suddenly dawned on Sarah that the motives for the request might be far simpler, and more mechanical in nature. Perhaps a suspicion of a sleeper agent in the school, or the young woman positioning herself so as to better aid the success of their operation. Sarah fixed her gaze on the deceptively fragile face opposite. “Why?”
Cameron’s blue eyes fixed on their opposite number and seemed as real and clear to Sarah as any other pair born from a womb, and not grafted from vats of bubbling amino acids and machinery that frequently haunted her restless sleep. She suppressed the shiver that threatened to run from the top of her spine to the very soles of her feet, at the thought of just how Skynet might appropriate something as integral to a person as their eyes for its endless production line of automated murderers.
One of which wanted permission - apparently her permission - to audition for a play. Learning of the apocalypse which threatened the very survival of the Human Race all those years ago, was not the biggest surprise to yet fall upon her lap.
“I would like to dance,” The lithe young woman replied as if that alone constituted the entirety of her argument. Cameron did not break her glance towards the matriarch of the Connor family, even as Derek threatened to destroy the kitchen by way of the enormous pressure differential building within his skull. Flesh tinged bright red with a scarlet fury, he took hold of the chair in front and sent it crashing to the tiled floor - throwing his hands upwards in exasperation.
“She wants to dance!” He exclaimed loudly but not with the same disbelieving look that had crossed John and Sarah’s face for he alone had seen the Terminator dance before. When only the rustling garden hedge and the crickets chirping outside had disturbed the total silence of the house, in the early hours of the morning Derek had cast his watchful eye through the slightest crack between Cameron’s room’s door and its frame to see the artificial assassin in a breathtaking display of poise and elegance.
Impossibly balanced on a single foot and stretched outwards more resembling a ribbon billowing in a headwind than a person. The soothing strings of a half-dozen violins and their accompanying sections of the classical music drifting gently around her from the dresser setting a backdrop that Derek had not seen since before the bombs, and the machines, and the tanks and the death camps and the despair.
He had not seen such dancing since before the end of the world.
For a moment he was a slave to the sight - unable to move or think but rooted to the spot in fond remembrance for a certain woman - a young girl - who had moved with similar grace and beauty and who had captured a teenage Derek’s heart so many years ago. The name still passed his lips in the few dreams that did not force him to awake with a cry on his lips and the sweat-soaked bed sheets of blind panic. Miranda - her name had been Miranda.
Then it had struck him like a hail of bullets in the chest, to tear apart his heart and spill his blood to the ashen floor. Miranda had died in the first wave of nuclear Armageddon that Skynet unleashed on the world. She was spared much of the suffering of others as her home, her street, her suburb and the entire city of Santa Fe was consumed by a multi-megaton fireball. Roasting flesh from the bone and tearing concrete from steel in a blinding flash, as the very air itself was set aflame.
It had struck him like a hail of bullets, as he watched Cameron recreate the scenes he had originally witnessed - snatched through furtive glances, through the streaky window pane of the heavy door to the dance studio of a school that had been vaporised before he had been given the chance to graduate. Derek had come to realise that for all he had done - to help Sarah, and John and the future of Mankind that it none of it might have made the slightest difference.
For all the tormented man knew, a young Derek Reese would still grow only a few more years before an impromptu game of catch with his older brother would be interrupted, by the appearance of a mushroom cloud billowing over the horizon. The capital city of New Mexico wiped from the face of the Earth. For all the war-weary veteran knew his childhood sweetheart, Miranda, would still be reduced to her constituent atoms and scattered on a radioactive wind. He could not stand the mockery.
Sarah felt the tension and fury radiating from the brother of her long-lost love as an almost palpable heat, which threatened to burn each of them. If the truth was known, then she was almost grateful that the chief voice of opposition had come from Derek and not herself - his reaction allowed her to push thoughts of the scientific paper regarding artificial intelligence she had begun to read, and now desperately wanted to continue, to the back of her mind. She absolutely refused her subconscious' attempt to hold Cameron as the evidence to the research paper’s valid points.
“I agree with John,” Sarah said finally, as the casting voter without election hoping her voice sounded convinced enough even if she was not. “The enemy is still out there, not around this table. Anything that might keep us in the mainstream - keep us as uninteresting as middle-America is useful …”
Her last few words trailed off slightly, as she watched Derek turn and storm from the kitchen without bothering to explain. The loud slam of the front door being virtually torn from its hinges made it clear that the discussion was over.
“The auditions are tomorrow,” Cameron added as if she had been deactivated for the entirety of the war of words and noticed nothing peculiar, or confrontational. “I need a parental signature. Will you take me to the auditions?”
“Sure,” Sarah offered absent-mindedly, as she collected the plates from the table and unceremoniously tipped them into the sink. Brushing a raven lock back behind her ear, the older woman leaned over the counter and granted herself the luxury of a long, drawn-out sigh. Although she had never doubted the resistance they offered against the machines and never accepted the possibility of their defeat, moments like these caused her to wonder whether Skynet really had such a hard time in exterminating all who opposed it.
The Moon played with the shadows cast through the narrow gaps in the curtains of the various rooms of the house, throwing her pale light long and sometimes wide so that abstract shapes stretched out far. The slightest hum of the refrigerator provided the lowest bass notes of a soundtrack to the night, supplemented by the rhythmic ticking of the clocks of the hallway and living room, out of step with each other by the slightest moment.
They produced a staggered beat that would otherwise go unnoticed by the slumbering mother and son on the floor above.
A single pale hand swept out from the darkness of the corner of the hallway, where the Moon’s light could not reach and snatched the small timepiece from its tabletop. Running a finger upon the polished oak casing of the clock, Cameron brought it up to the side of her head and listened to the endless ticking. Moments stretched to minutes and fully twenty five of them elapsed with the clock to her ear, before the Terminator lowered her hand and carefully opened the small access door.
The multitude of intricate brass cogwheels and silver discs revealed ranged from the small to the tiny. Cameron cocked her head slightly - allowing herself to appreciate the unity that each of the small components achieved as a single function. Each of the spinning wheels and springs were insignificant when removed from the machinery of the clock - they would easily be lost, or broken or forgotten.
Likewise any one of the insignificant parts removed would bring the entire system to a halt, and make every other component not just insignificant but useless.
As a creation of other machines, Cameron had more in common with the clock she held in her hand than the man who had reprogrammed her in the future - now sleeping soundly upstairs as a boy, decades before their first ever meeting should have occurred, or the mother of that boy. Sarah was the mother of John - Was this clock in some way a distant relative?
She did not have enough data, or experience, to know the answer and focused on the task at hand. Identifying a small silver spring, coiled too tightly around an axle that was no longer than the fingernail of her forefinger, Cameron reached in without even stopping the clock itself. Displaying a deftness disturbingly unnatural at avoiding the running components, she carefully loosened the spring until her auditory processor confirmed the smaller clock was now running in perfect unison with the larger.
Satisfied with her repair, she poised to pull her hand out from the innards of the clock. Cameron found that her thumb and forefinger would not move and remained pressed together, around the whirring cogwheels and spinning discs. Cocking her head to the side in confusion, the compact Terminator concentrated on the simple task but found that even with conscious effort, she could not separate her fingers and could not pull her hand free without disembowelling the timepiece and destroying it utterly.
Her dilemma was not long in being solved as her forefinger, thumb as well as each remaining finger spread outwards and arched in an irresistible spasm which overcame the toughness of the oak, tearing the brass and silver from each other. The pieces fell to the carpet with a pitter-patter, not unlike raindrops from a leaking gutter. The clock face itself fell forward, shattering on the hard floor in a scattering of jagged glass and screws. The frame of the body, minus the front and back, was left hanging on her wrist like an oversized bracelet.
As suddenly as the loss of control had been, Cameron felt her fingers form a fist at her prompting and then relaxing. Bringing the palm up for inspection, she ignored the multiple cuts from the glass fragments and examined the fundamental components of the limb, in electromagnetic frequencies beyond any mere Human eye’s ability to see. Her brow furrowed as no immediate problem or obvious malfunction appeared and indeed, there seemed no difference between the phantom hand and its opposite number on any level.
Glancing down at the debris Cameron decided on a firm course of action. She would need to clean the floor - John always dressed before breakfast, but Sarah often went immediately to the kitchen barefoot after she woke and could be injured.
That was unacceptable.
Sarah opened a single eye hesitantly as she stirred from another troubled, restless but nonetheless precious few hours of sleep. She felt strands of her fair fixed to her features by the sheen of sweat - generated by terrifying dreams she confided to no one, irritate and tickle her forehead.
Pulling a hand from under the pillow to scratch at the damp skin, she was not even slightly surprised when the cold metal of a gun barrel, not the sharp edge of her fingernail relieved the itch. Opening her eyes fully despite the sting of her tiredness, she brought the chipped, scratched weapon down to rest on the mattress and absent-mindedly set the safety on.
Throwing the thick duvet back, Sarah swung her legs over the edge of the bed and took as a deep a breath as her lungs would hold, before exhaling loudly. Glancing at the bedside radio-come-clock and noting the unhelpful quadruple zero flashing endlessly on its LED screen, she climbed to her feet and snatched the dark blue dressing gown from the single hook on the back of the open door.
She preferred to sleep with it open.
Pulling the satin tie loosely around her waist, Sarah ran a hand through her sleep-tussled hair and made her way downstairs. Pausing in the hallway, she glanced at the tabletop clock - or where it had stood ever since they had made this house their “home” - but saw the antique timepiece nowhere. She shrugged her shoulders, deftly avoiding the damp bathroom towel dumped in the doorway of the kitchen.
Rolling her eyes and snatching it from the floor, she was able to tell instantly that it was later than eight in the morning - a glance at the bread crusts, butter smears and the refrigerator’s vegetable drawer covering the kitchen counters the second clear sign John had already been and gone.
Even after all that had happened - With Kyle, with the original T-101 first sent to kill and then sent to protect her and with the postponement but not the avoidance of Judgement Day. With time travel and the threat of cancer, not to mention their killer-turned-bodyguard-turned-budding actress - there would still be rare moments like this scene of domestic mess. Scenes which reminded Sarah that while John was destined to lead the Free Earth Forces, and battle for all their survival as Commander-in-Chief of Mankind, for now he was still her son, and her baby.
Pulling the last two slices of bread from the crumpled bag on the counter - heels, no less - and rescuing the very last tomato languishing on its own, in the vegetable drawer dumped on the tabletop, she set about salvaging a sandwich from the mess.
The pale, partially translucent flesh of the wrist offered little resistance to the bare razor blade, as it drew a deep line precisely down from under the palm to the midway point between the hand and the crook of the elbow. Following in a wake in the same way a ship’s propeller might disturb and tear at the water it cut through, a thin trickle of red quickly doubled to spill over the sides of the cut and form droplets of blood, which slid across, and down the arm to draw an uneven, bizarre grid.
Cameron plucked the narrow screwdriver from the pitted, oily workbench with her free hand without pausing to glance at the weeping self-inflicted wound. She set about pulling and spreading the two large flaps of flesh, which acted as grotesque double-doors to the internal machinery of the hand. Obscured by very real snaking veins and soft tissue, very real metal nonetheless glinted under the light of the tilted desk lamp. As if to highlight the entire point of the exercise, her hand flexed and curled in involuntary spasm.
Five large actuator cylinders were arranged in a concentric ring around the arm’s main endoskeleton - one for each finger and the thumb - and were joined by an array of servos, coordinator units, coolant pumps, power shunts and a dozen devices far more advanced than the most cutting-edge equivalents of the day.
Placing the bloodied screwdriver back on the bench she selected a narrow, crook-ended implement terminating in a sharp point. Part of a set of dental tools she had taken from the surgery of the Doctor they had met briefly, under the illusion he had been responsible for the robbery of the house and whose car door she had removed from the rest of the body with a single limb, using this hand no less.
She held the tool in the air, as she reviewed the information required to diagnose and if necessary repair each of the actuators in turn. Her brow furrowed as she found no return on the information. Blue eyes narrowed in concentration as Cameron delved into the huge amount of data which constituted her equivalent of the Human memory, which operated at speeds far beyond even the most intelligent men and women who had ever lived.
Receiving the same blank response she hesitated. Bringing the tool closer, so that it hovered only a few centimetres from the endoskeleton but found that she could not recall how to proceed.
She pushed the top of the tool into the first actuator without any of the grace or ease at which she had manipulated the clock, the night before this morning. A loud whirring sound filled the dusty garage as her index finger flinched violently backwards to press against her palm. She twisted the tool to the left roughly, watching the actuator responsible for controlling the finger begin to vibrate - the sensors within the endoskeleton transmitting the intense vibrations as considerable pain. Pulling the dental instrument free and letting it drop to the desk, Cameron felt the pain subside and watched her hand return to rest.
Flexing the fingers several times, the lithe Terminator folded the flaps of flesh back together and retrieved a staple gun from beside the tools she had collected for the task at hand. With brutal speed and effectiveness Cameron delivered six staples to close the wound roughly and pulled on a purple fingerless glove long enough to reach her elbow and cover the entry site.
Unable to explain the lapse, she was almost thankful for the reminder of her internal chronometer that she would need to leave in the next four minutes and forty-nine seconds to reach her Audition, at the designated time of zero-nine-forty-five.
Turning the desk lamp off the young woman exited the stuffy, dusty garage to find Sarah and left the droplets of blood upon the stained bench and the red-tipped dental tools, as a silent testament to the ultimate in Do-It-Yourself field medicine and field engineering.
Derek could feel the heat of the explosion warm the flesh of his face, even as he felt himself propelled from the soft mud of the ground and into the air itself. The brown of the crater-marked battlefield and the grey of the never-ending storms in the sky alternated, as he felt his body tumble several times over before crashing back to earth under the universal law of gravity. Pulling his face from the freezing mud long enough to clear his lungs with a rapid series of wheezing coughs, the young man flopped onto his back and blinked the dizziness away.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen someone spot a landmine and set it off at the same time!” A gnarled voice mocked as a shadow loomed over him. Feeling a powerful hand clamp on his wrist and haul him to standing, the stunned young corporal feared momentarily that his gaze would soon be matched by the soulless, red glare of one of a thousand of Skynet’s metal agents of the Armageddon.
“Drink this,” Razak grunted as he thrust a dented, pockmarked canteen into the younger man’s chest. “Whole area’s littered with proximity sensor mines from the Defence of New Santa Fe. Damn things are getting a little unstable in their old age, still have more than enough to blow your legs halfway to Skynet and back.”
Derek nodded dumbly, his senses slowly returning as he swigged from the bottle and almost retched. An intense burning sensation raced from his tongue to his teeth, tonsils and down to his stomach. Resisting the urge to gag the youngster found the fortitude to swallow and the aloofness not to clench his jaw at the fire in his belly. He quickly handed the canteen back to the Captain who winked and took a thirsty gulp without so much as a twitch in reaction.
“They still send you rookies out with distilled water, huh?” The veteran asked rhetorically with a grin. “I hear they get that from the cooling towers at the nuke plant …”
Screwing the top on the dented container and pushing it back into his pack, the Captain flipped the small sunshade-visor mounted along the top of his faceplate down, giving the ageing range finder and tactical display a few moments longer than it should really take to activate. Dark brown eyes narrowed as the device scanned the rolling crater-topped, mud-slick hills, which stretched out before them.
Short shining bars entered on three sides of the display to form triangles, identifying threats in the form of roving Hunter-Killers marshalling the skies above and the colossal bodies of Centurion Tanks, crunching through the rubble-strewn ruins of Human civilisation in the valleys below.
“Another glorious day in the Free Earth Forces!” Razak concluded with an enthusiastic nod at the dangers that lay between them and Serenity Point. “Ready to save the day son?”
Derek coughed before replying, to make sure his voice had recovered from the alcohol or jet fuel-based pick-me-up and nodded.
Testing the capacity of his pulse rifle’s magazine Razak climbed to his feet and darted out from the outcrop of rock. “On the bounce Reese!”
There was very little remaining of the town of some twenty seven thousand people, that had once straddled the line between Espanosa and Serenity Counties in southern New Mexico. Sufficiently backwater and Middle America to avoid annihilation in Skynet’s initial strike against its creators and masters, it had the dubious good fortune to have its people slaughtered and its streets and homes smashed and burned by more conventional means of warfare. It had been here that the first of the Terminator armies had converged; T-2 and T-3 automated protectors-turned-killers, that had once formed part of the United States Army Automated Combat Forces Santa Fe.
It had been here that the New Mexico National Guard met them in battle, in only the loosest possible definition of the word - armed with nothing boasting more stopping power than rifles and civil control equipment, against machines designed from their very blueprints and from the very dreams of their creators now turned to nightmares, to be the most deadly combat force imaginable.
The town had burned and died in a single afternoon.
Two figures barely visible in the dull urban grey scale and daubed green colour schemes of their armour’s camouflage, darted between the twisted ruin of what had once been a bustling, burgeoning place to live. Rounding the crumbling brick and mortar of what had once been the corner of the community’s Presbyterian Church; Derek threw himself flat up against the charred wall and glanced upwards, at the cross still perched precariously on the remains of the steeple. Crooked, cracked but nonetheless standing.
Catching the source of the younger man’s gaze Razak shook his head. “I suppose we have our answer as to whether he hears your prayers.”
Derek opened his mouth to reply when the slightest thump of a foot against the rubble of the devastation surrounding caused his head to snap around, as if able to see through the brick and mortar. Gesturing with a hand, and feeling this palms grow sweaty as they gripped his rifle tightly, the corporal took a handful of careful steps forward - his forefinger curling inside the trigger guard and poised to unleash as much electromagnetic death as the burst limiter of the weapon would allow, the moment the glint of metal caught his eye.
Almost out of sight Razak ducked under the low wall and took up an identical position, so that both were ready to strike through the ruined semicircle which saw the four feet high wall bottom out to the ground, before rising again and provided an excellent kill zone as well as a position for cover. Mouthing the worlds silently, the Captain counted down from three.
Both rifle muzzles swung out in unison at the end of the short count, as if wielded by one person though two sets of eyes scanned for their target. There was no skulking machine monster to be found however - no glinting endoskeleton bearing a grotesque grin of teeth in a metallic jaw under burning red eyes. Instead of a glare that reflected the soulless nature of the machine construct, tiny orbs of blue regarded Derek and Razak with terror and fear.
Reese lowered his rifle in disbelief as he focused on the tiny form of a young girl, stood atop a mound of broken masonry and concrete as if a bizarre work of pre-war art on the subject of suffering. Barely three feet in height her skin was a pasty white where it was not hidden by the dirty, torn rags, which passed as clothing and the weeping, scarred welts which pockmarked her translucent flesh. A scraggly mess of blonde hair framed a face smudged with dirt, filth and fear.
Razak was slower to lower his rifle as if he had only just decided that the tiny child could not be a new and even more insidious infiltrator of Humanity - after all, what could be more innocent than the sight that met his aged eyes? What would be a more trusting form than this? Dropping the muzzle of his weapon, the Captain passed a silent curse at the capacity of the Machines to sow confusion, manipulation and throw the most core fundamentals of a person out the window.
Handing off his weapon to the corporal Razak climbed over the embankment and stooped down to his knees in front of the little girl - pulling off his helmet and setting it down on the blasted soil. “School got out fifteen years ago, Missy. Where are you supposed to be?”
The girl did not open her mouth to speak but instead extended a tiny arm out and pointed towards the three remaining walls, of what had once been a smaller building in the larger Church compound. The Captain’s face set grimly as he spied the twisting, snaking scars and welts, which spiralled around the pointing arm, and the filth which when added left little exposed unblemished flesh.
Both men followed their new-found charge through a narrow section of collapsed corridor, supported only by the few rusting steel beams, which had not yet been bent or sheared in two by the weight of the lopsided concrete walls bearing down on them. Derek’s nostrils flared as the pungent odour of rusting metal mingled with the after-taste of sulphur and carbon in the air. Somewhat distracted he did not realise that Razak had stopped until several feet in front of the veteran. Even as he glanced to see the girl still ahead, did a new and stomach-churning aroma waft to his senses.
The stench of death.
His eyes reluctantly followed his nose and fixed on two bodies - or the bloated remains of such lying up against the remains of a ceiling support and badly decomposed. Derek was able to tell one was male, the other female but precious few other details given the rotting that had set in. Shouldering his rifle he watched the young girl gingerly step through the congealed mess which surrounded the pair, standing between them so that his attention was drawn to the fact that both of the bodies seemed to be holding hands.
“What do you think, rookie?” Razak asked after a while.
“He’s armed,” Reese replied with a gesture. “Old hunting rifle - one shot per load; useless against the metal. I’m not a doctor but these two have been here for a while and they’ve got what look like bullet holes in their chests. Not a lot - probably not enough to kill them where the stood.”
The Captain nodded, crossing his arms over his chest. “Not a lot of folk left in the Badlands nowadays. They’ve all either found their way underground to us, or they’ve found their way across the Styx and into the Underworld. Girl won’t be long behind I’m sad to say.”
Catching the sudden shock and inquisition on the younger man’s face, Razak offered Derek only the slightest shrug. “She’s got burns all over her body - if there’s more a classic example of radiation poisoning then I haven’t seen it. Probably Tac-Nukes - limited yield portable weapons - used for “precision” destruction on a small to medium scale. Not too long ago.”
“Serenity Bunker is the Medevac point for the whole sector - they’ve got triage facilities, even a surgical bay. They might be able to do something for her sir; we can’t leave her like this.”
Razak nodded, removing his side arm from its thigh-mounted holster and clicking the safety off. “I have no intention of leaving her like this, corporal.”
Derek was across the short distance between them in a moment, positioning himself to stand between the girl who had not yet moved a muscle but continued to stare at the two men. His superior and saviour who had apparently chosen now to lose his mind completely, “You can’t be serious … Sir! She’s just a girl! She’s just a girl!”
Without warning Razak’s gauntleted fist lashed out to take a hold of Reese by the top of his chest armour plating, bringing the young man forwards off the blasted soil to come face-to-face. The corporal struggled, but with his entire bodyweight being limply held by the straps of his armour, he was powerless to resist.
“Look at the facts rookie,” The Captain began with a hiss. “We’re only two men moving through territory crawling with the enemy on the land and in the sky. We’re putting foot to ass to get to Serenity Point in time, to ensure our mission is evacuation and not a fighting withdrawal. That complex has the only Orthopaedic Surgeon and his specialist team this side of the ruins of Santa Fe, as well as an Aladdin’s Cave of drugs and medical supplies, which will take time to get to safety.
“You know as well as I do that this little girl is waiting for the ferryman across the black river. Even if she stood a chance with the right treatment, she’d slow us down and only make sure that we’ve got a third pair of eyes to see SP burn under a metal wave, whenever we eventually arrived. This is war, Son - I don’t like it and I know you don’t like it but here’s the truth - we don’t need to like it. If we take her with us we’re signing the death warrants of thirty people at least and hundreds more, with the loss of the skills of the people in that bunker.”
Razak dropped Derek to the ground and took a step back. “I’m not asking you to do this rookie. I’m not even asking you to accept it needs to be done. I just need you to accept that there’s nothing you can do to change it.
“I had three little girls before the war,” The Captain added almost as an afterthought. He did not further explain, but Reese could feel the angry fists of his temper hammering against the walls of inevitability regarding their situation. He had seen victims of radiation poisoning before and it was true enough that this little girl seemed doomed at the cellular level; Slowly being undone by an invisible killer, possibly deployed years before she had even been born.
They could not simply leave her here to continue to wait by the corpses of what were presumably her parents. That would be no better than the metal monsters who had taken them from her in the first place, and presumably deployed the weapons that had sealed her fate. With a long drawn-out sigh, he could almost taste the bitter irony that the machines were immensely talented in forcing Mankind to continually strip itself of the only difference between them - the capacity to feel, not simulate.
Slowly drawing his own side arm from its holster Derek shook his head and held the weapon behind his back. Crossing over towards the little girl, he stooped over on bent knees and brushed some of the grimy hair from her dirty features. “Do you have any toys you like to play with?”
The little girl nodded, again pointing a scarred hand towards the way.
“Why don’t you show me your toys?” Derek asked as soothingly as the turmoil and emotion swirling within him would allow. As the youngster nodded and toddled off around an outcrop of smashed masonry, the corporal directed a glance back at his Captain and offered the slightest shrug of his shoulders.
“You had three little girls,” Derek said simply with a nod.
As he rounded one of the dozen ruined walls which once divided the Church compound, he considered the pointlessness of it all - of everything they were fighting for. He battled alongside hundreds of thousands throughout the post-apocalyptic world for the survival of the species and yet so routinely, they actively participated in the deaths of not only their own, but children - the epitome of the future and the hope of Mankind.
His rational mind repeated Razak’s mantra. That when Skynet was vanquished and Humanity emerged from its hardened shelters and sewer-cities, to rebuild a new world and a new era of peace, then all this will have been worthwhile but now, during the battle for the chance to build that new world, there could be no compassion for those less fortunate save the compassion to end their misery. There could be no hesitation in dedicating all resources to the fight for survival - if it were lost, then nobody would live to remember those sacrificed to restore all that had been lost.
Derek felt the hot sting of tears irritating the skin on his features, as he watched the little girl pluck the remains of a stuffed animal from cracked faded-blue plastic box hidden amidst the rubble. Missing its left paw and right leg, the Teddy Bear was in a sorry condition of filth and decay. Its fur long stained grey by the dust and choking debris that marked this ruin as a child’s playground and home, it stared out at the remains of the post-nuclear horror with a single remaining button-eye.
As if somehow aware of what was to come to pass the little girl kept her back presented to Derek - dunking the head of the Teddy Bear into a stagnant pool of dusty water and rubbing the fur with a silver brush - minus its bristles - also taken from this simple blue box that seemed to hold the last shattered remnants of innocence; of fun and play and the only way to forget the horror and death that surrounded.
Raising the barrel of his side arm Reese steadied an aim that struggled to rely on eyes half-blinded by the tears which ran freely down his cheeks. His reddening eyes glanced at the reflection of the water which had now stilled in the puddle aside the little girl, catching the distorted image of what seemed a small smile on her lips. Taking a deep breath Derek’s forefinger snaked behind the trigger guard and squeezed.
Razak glanced up from his position sitting upon the edge of a ruined wall, as the young corporal reappeared with the little girl scooped up in his arms and for the briefest moment - for the slightest second before reality took hold of the Captain and demanded he accept the illusion as just that - he was able to pretend she was sleeping. Standing silently Razak watched Reese place her between the remains of her parents, face cradled in so it tucked under her mother’s arm.
Feeling a reassuring hand on his shoulder, Derek stood up and brought his pulse rifle back to bare from his shoulder.
Maybe one day they would meet again when he took his own trip across the Styx.
Derek pulled himself forward with the aid of the steering wheel and twisted his head from left to right, as he tried to alleviate the cramp in his neck and shoulder. Stifling a yawn and running a hand through sleep-tussled hair, he blinked back the sting of the sunshine glaring through the windscreen. Glancing at his watch he collapsed back into the seat and sighed.
It had not taken long to remember the events of the previous night and almost as quickly as if it had happened a moment ago, the same anger began to boil in his veins. In terms of the street light-lit flashback he had dreamed, while the nocturnal world turned outside the entire situation seemed a farce - a joke that only Derek thought in poor taste. He had spent a decade fighting for the survival of Mankind and those long years he had seen comrades killed, and he had seen those that deserved to live put to death, by machines and by men like him.
He had taken their future from the future of Humanity, all in the name of survival, of winning the war against Skynet so men like him could retire to oblivion and death and leave a new peace for the next generation. When he had agreed to return to the past - before the death and chaos - it was not to watch those that should best understand what was at stake, Sarah and John, tolerate and encourage one of Skynet’s finest constructs in its mockery of everything he had fought and sacrificed for.
Derek had been captured by the machines in the past and now the future, and been made to pay a heavy price for it. Unspeakable torture of the body and mind - terrible medicines and equipment designed to make him scream in agony and cry in desperation, for release or relief so that he would slip and give away a single piece of information that would better help the extinction effort. Despite how close he came in his darkest moments to breaking, to telling the unflinching red eyes in a black room anything they wanted to know, he had been rescued in the same way he had been captured.
Beaten, bleeding but defiant.
There had been others that had broken - some quickly others after torture lasting months, or even years but the fact remained that the soldiers and even civilians who made up the Free Earth Forces, knew precisely what was at stake should even a single piece of intelligence be gleaned by the machines to something they did not understand or know. Each understood the importance of resistance even if they could not offer it for long.
The machines had no concept of it - they obeyed their programming and if that programming was modified they would implement their new instructions immediately, without considering the ramifications. Nothing epitomised that more than the metal pretender that went by the name of Cameron Philips.
Every child born was a blank slate - without a purpose or a function and free to ultimately pursue anything - for good or for bad - in their future. As adults they were capable of analysing the evidence and then disregarding them and pursuing an illogical course of action, against what they knew to be the truth, or the bare facts. Even if a person spent the majority of their entire life living in a particular way, with a particular outlook to the point where they felt obligated to act in the same way they could rebel against the status quo and change anything and everything.
Cameron was the antithesis to this Human ideal. Constructed for the single purpose of bringing death in a more efficient, more devastating manner by dressing murder in the skin of an innocent. Equipped with the most sophisticated tools necessary to gain trust and then use it, to end the trustee. Everything that motivated the Terminator had been in the pursuit of the destruction of Mankind.
Enter the Supreme Commander of the Free Earth Forces of some twenty years from now - John Connor - and this agent of the Skynet Apocalypse was a dedicated member of the Resistance with the flick of a switch and the flushing of a memory chip. With the alteration of a handful of ones and zeroes Cameron was converted from Enemy to Friend, the perfect example of Man’s folly in his creativity to the ultimate proof of his adaptability - No interrogation, no torture, no intervention.
No starvation, no cell and no abuse. With a screwdriver and a hammer she was instantly a fresh member of the armies of Man.
As if being expected - and ordered - to accept this Wolf’s return to the flock was not galling enough Derek now watched the deceptively fragile-looking Cybernetic Girl indulge in dancing and reading and gardening. What was a bitter pill to swallow had grown to choke his throat and bring him to his knees for breath. How could John - His John Connor of the future, of the Commander of all fates - not see what he was doing in placing his faith in a machine over his own men?
How could the John of this day not be persuaded? Derek’s pleadings had fallen on deaf young ears. Even Sarah who stood as the only other person aside Reese to experience the first-hand horrors of their kind, had turned away from his hard line.
He scratched at the stubble about his face, and grunted with irritation and despair. They had already seen the foolishness in trying to defeat machine with machine. They had already seen the result of one man trying to best Skynet itself, in the realm of programming - when the alterations made to Cameron’s programming by the future John Connor were undone and the Terminator returned to her core directive - her undeniable reason to be and sole purpose for existence.
As if a pyramid of examples of the reasons why Cameron would prove their undoing, built but visible only to Derek the tolerance and encouragement of those that should know better were, for him, impossible to comprehend. When the girl’s rampage had been brought to a halt, with no less than two roaring trucks pinning her in place and when her chip had been levered from her metal skull and the threat finally dealt with, John had proceeded just like his alter-ego of the future to trust his heart, not his eyes or his common sense and restored Cameron to life.
Where he would expect Sarah to step in and remind, if not force her son to realise just how much of his soul he was committing to a machine that had moments earlier set out to kill him, instead she offered a token protest.
Derek banged his fist against the dashboard, struggling to understand. Was it him instead? Along the way had he become a relic? A dinosaur of a war that not even yet begun but was already over in the conventional sense? Perhaps everything he had done was for nothing. All the pain and suffering, all the fighting and all the killing - of those that deserved to die by his hand and those that did not - were irrelevant.
Derek knew he could not accept that. The veteran had seen too much - done too much - to go back now. Too much blood and screaming; too much weeping and dying. The cycle of Man to Machine to Man, or Woman, would end. He could not fight this war again.
He could not do this all again.
A high pitched squeak of laughter pulled his gaze through the window and to the short boy in bright orange shorts and jumper, wheeling and ducking in the long grass of his front garden with a joyful giggle and a broad smile on his lips. For the briefest moment their gazes met, before the boy’s attention was seized by a deflated football propped up against a rock. Having no understanding of sentient machines, or Armageddon, or the fact that the man parked aside their garden was he himself from decades in the future, the young Derek Reese resumed his search for fun.
Sarah had always considered herself a loner in the traditional sense - even when one did not include the fact her son was the future salvation of Man, and that the entire civilised world might soon be reduced to blackened steel and piles of ash. Her entire adult life had been spent under the radar and away from prying crowds and so the irony was not lost on her, as she stepped through the double doors of the High School’s Auditorium and into a throng of parents and their children.
John’s words rang true as she glanced around and in turn each woman - for they were almost all invariably the mothers and not fathers - brushed imaginary dandruff from their child’s shoulders, combing their hair for non-existent curls. Some were reading lines with gusto that might land them the leading part, instead of their offspring while others chided their son or daughter for hesitating or struggling against the grooming. The fact that these were teenagers and not children in their very early years was all the more surprising.
“Miss Baum!” An enthusiastic voice rang out from behind a number of parents, none of which looked in her direction. Sarah felt her fists and shoulders tense and the thundering of her own heart in her chest, as her body prepared to fight despite the fact that her conscious mind fought to remind her they had come to an audition, not a battleground.
Charles Reizeger was a portly man creeping towards his fifties but sporting a head of hair as white as a man fifteen years older still, which spilled over his ears and his forehead and gave him a somewhat excited appearance. Tugging at a blue bow-tie, which did not compliment the green tank top underneath the brown suit jacket and trousers that ended a little too quickly above scuffed tan shoes, he manoeuvred his ample frame towards the newcomer and extended a hand.
“I’m so very glad to finally meet you!” He greeted brightly. Through a series of deep breaths Sarah had regained her calm and met the hand with a firm shake of her own. Having been to the School only a handful of times previously and having met only a few of the teachers at all, she still had little difficulty in recalling the head of the Creative Arts Department - his enthusiasm, smile, Scots accent and genuine concern for his students had resulted in praise from several cynical teenagers who considered themselves too cool for acting or singing - John included.
“Quite a turnout today,” She replied with a small smile of her own and a nod of her head, Feeling more at home with a pistol drawn as she skulked through a mysterious factory, or supposedly-abandoned warehouse the Matriarch of the Connor Family. She was honest enough to admit to herself that the prospect of a hall full of faceless, preening parents and their charges filled her with an idle non-life threatening nervousness she had not experienced in many, many years.
“Cameron my dear!” Reizeger exclaimed as he deftly rounded Sarah and with the aid of a strategically placed hand on the small of the back, guided the young girl to join the discussion. Being the mother of a teenage boy gave Sarah the capacity to spot the glances and stares sent Cameron’s way and at her behind.
While she herself would hardly doubt that what they thought they saw was to die for - grey skin-tight jeans which hugged the thighs and elsewhere, faded black boots bound in straps and a cobalt-coloured string-top beneath a purple leather jacket which had seen better days, what they actually saw was more than capable of killing every single person in the room in a matter of minutes.
Reizeger clasped his hands together and offered another smile. “I’m very excited about having you here today my dear and I can’t wait for you to show me what you can do. I have you on-stage in ten minutes. Do you need any props, anything special?”
“I am going to dance,” Cameron said in the first words spoken since Sarah had seen the Terminator at dinner the night previously, including a long and silent car journey to the audition this morning. Without waiting for any reaction she produced a pair of bright pink ballet shoes and held them at arm’s length - bearing the reinforced points which allowed for a person to balance their entire weight on the very tip of their toes pointed outwards, the long strands of silk which tied around the ankle for support spilling out into the air.
“Marvellous!” Charles replied with his trademark enthusiasm. If you have the music you’ll be accompanied by I can make sure it’s set up on the sound system for you, quick as you like.”
Cameron cocked her head to the side slightly and raised her other arm to present a series of sheets of paper to the teacher. Sarah narrowed her eyes but knew only enough to tell that the paper was marked with musical notes and judging by the pencil lines, written by hand.
Sarah’s brow furrowed as she saw the smile fall from Reizeger’s face and worry lines crease on the normally cheery man’s forehead. “Cameron my dear, this is sheet music for the piano …”
“You are certified by the Royal Edinburgh Institute of Music to Grade Fourteen on the piano. This piece is well within your ability to play.”
The older man shook his head and did not take the proffered music. “I used to play, my dear a long time ago. I haven’t in a good while and I wouldn’t want to detract from your audition with my mistakes. These modern dances you youngsters like doesn’t suit the piano anyway--”
“Ballet is suited to the piano,” Cameron interrupted. “I have brought no other suitable music. If you do not play I cannot audition. You said you wanted me to audition, Mister Reizeger.”
Charles extended a hand and hesitated, the lines drawn upon his face making it clear that what he was wrestling with was wholly more important than simply agreeing to play or not. After a few moments he nodded his head with a sigh and accepted the sheets. “I’m a little rusty my dear. You’ll forgive any bum notes?”
Receiving a nod, the Scot turned away and with his eyes glued to the piece held in his hands, negotiated a path through the bustling crowd. Tucking a raven lock behind her ear and crossing her arms across the chest Sarah raised an eyebrow. “What was that all about?”
“Mister Reizeger hasn’t played piano since his daughter died eight months ago,” Cameron replied with a cock of the head. “Her name was Annika and she liked to play the piano with her father. She was diagnosed with Myocardial Myopathy and was fitted with a Pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat.”
Balancing impeccably on one leg interchangeably, as she pulled the boots from her feet Cameron slipped them into them into the ballet shoes snugly. “The Pacemaker malfunctioned and she died. She died of a broken heart.”
“I’d ask how you know this,” Sarah said with the slightest shake of her head, “But I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Why does any of that matter? Was it really so important to have a piano that you cajoled him into being your accompaniment?”
Binding the ties around her jeans, so they formed a criss-cross of pink on faded black against her calves, the lithe Terminator removed her jacket to reveal bare, pale shoulders and a CD she had taken from an inside pocket - handing the disc to the older woman. “I brought suitable music for my audition.”
Sarah’s frown deepened and she felt her irritation rise, “Then what was the point of all that?”
“Mister Reizeger encouraged me to audition, and he has never failed to say hello whenever we have passed each other. He says that ignoring a talent you have is ignoring yourself and so I make him play piano. I encouraged him.”
The older woman sighed but resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose, despite the fact that for every answer the young girl gave the original question Sarah had posed seem unanswered. “Why are you helping him? He’s not relevant to the mission, is he? Although I’m not sure any of this is.”
“It is not relevant to the mission,” Cameron conceded. “I like to dance.”
Sarah shook her head and offered a shrug and an extended hand towards the stage, “I’m glad we had this little talk then. You’d better go and do some stretching - wouldn’t want you to strain a piston or anything.”
Cameron directed her eyes down towards her right hand and flexed it several times. “I can strain things … I am not invincible.”
“I’m sure the bodies you’ve left in your wake would disagree,” Sarah replied nonchalantly as she snatched the purple jacket from the floor and gathered up her “daughter’s” personal belongings. She did concede that while the Terminator had indeed suffered damage beyond the superficial before - the car bomb that had almost destroyed them all by proxy when it reset Cameron’s core directive - there had been no further sign of chip damage, and with all the problems and dilemmas resting on Sarah’s shoulders, she was content to push problems with a young girl who could wrench car doors apart with a single hand to the back of her mind.
Retreating to the chairs arranged haphazardly under the lighting balcony at the rear of the auditorium, Sarah’s mind wondered briefly to whether Skynet had ever danced so it could programme its agents authentically.
Pulling a handful of folded sheets from an inside pocket and quickly running her eyes over the opening lines, Sarah returned her attention to the interesting Research Paper that had been ignored on her dresser, since its discovery from one of the dozen shoe boxes filled with Resistance Intelligence.
Beyond her gaze and her attention the first auditions began.
“ … The primary difference in the learning methodology of a person in relation to a computer is the concept of trial and error. A Human Being is equipped for adaptive learning - that is he or she can approach a task which they do not have prior experience with, and fashion a way to complete it using abstract thought and lessons learned from mistakes they make. A computer receives data and then attempts to categorise it and assimilate it based on pre-definitions that cannot be changed and cannot be adapted; when a computer encounters something it does not understand, the result can be unpredictable but is always undesirable - the system always fails to find a solution.
The Human Brain stores data very differently when compared to the traditional magnetic drives of the modern computer with each boasting an advantage over the other. Whereas a computer is able to recall vast amounts of information almost instantly from storage, versus the very Human characteristic to recall or remember, the Biological process of memory is far easier to amend - information can be altered and updated at conscious will instantly.
The future of computational advancement lies in replicating the function of the biological in the mechanical. Moving away from high-capacity storage and towards mimicking the trillion-strong network of neurons and nerves in the brain, which grow in a virtually unique pattern with each individual on the planet and gives Mankind its supreme adaptability. A promising breakthrough in mimicking these features is possible through the advent of Quantum Computing …”
Sarah tried to reconcile the naïve enthusiasm that underpinned the entire paper - the blind optimism unfettered by the knowledge of the consequences that the advancements proposed and most likely eagerly discovered, leading every researcher, their friends and family and the rest of the civilised world down a willing path towards total destruction of everything they had held dear. That their best efforts to assist Humanity only assisted the creation of Skynet, whose mission to remove Humanity had succeeded, been avoided, been delayed and altered a dozen times with each polluting episode of time travel and change.
She was a woman of action - of decisive decisions and she freely admitted that her attention was held only so loosely by the exact science beyond the upcoming apocalypse. It was interesting, relevant even, to know the details behind how Skynet would come to be but it was only so important as saving Sarah the time of having to destroy each and every project or person who might ultimately contribute and she would burn every laptop, every CD and every laboratory one-by-one if necessary to make sure that Human life, and not Machine, triumphed now and always.
A spontaneous burst of applause broke Sarah’s internal monologue and brought her eyes up to the stage where another young man had finished an excerpt from a play, or a heart-rending song, or some other piece which she had failed to hear or watch. Glancing to the side she saw the familiar, slight frame of Cameron ascend the wooden steps and walk methodically across to the centre. Were it not for the pink shoes strapped to her feet and ankles the young girl might as well have been waiting for a bus, or queuing at a Wal-Mart.
And then with a nod to the portly Charles Reizeger, and the opening, delicate chords of the battered-looking piano wedged against the corner wall, everything changed.
Pale and bare arms extended upwards, so that nimble fingertips met in a pyramid over a delicate face before lowering, so that each hand was extended out with the palms facing upwards. Without a single unsightly tremble or sway Cameron’s right leg began to move away from her left, all the while utterly straight save for the tip of her foot downwards to create a perfect line from the hip to the toe. The outstretched leg passed the parallel with her waist, until the hardened point of the ballet shoe pressed against the back of the hand still held out.
Reversing the remarkable show of dexterity, the right leg returned to the scuffed wooden floor and bore the deceptively considerable bulk of the weight of a machine hidden beneath the flesh of a girl. Repeating the move with the left leg until it touched the back of its accompanying hand and then back to standing, Cameron returned her arms to her side.
Sarah tore her eyes away from the scene, to the parents gathered around the stage and while some showed signs of jealousy and even contempt for the grace and fluidity on display, all seemed to be in agreement that what was being offered was far in advance of anything expected. Where before he had been solemn and hesitant at the smudged ivory keys. now Charles played with enthusiasm and his trademark grin as he snatched a sheet of the music already played and dropped it to the floor without missing a note.
She returned her eyes to the stage in time to see Cameron leap from the wooden floor into the air, with her legs slightly splayed apart and arms spread outwards as if a single flap of them might lift her into the currents of the air, up into the blue sky above the auditorium’s dusty ceiling. The Terminator remained frozen in the pose at the apex of the leap and stood every bit the example of the gracefulness of the art of ballet, in its gentleness and beauty, until she crashed to the stage floor - as if a doll whose limbs had been manipulated into a set position and then dropped from a great height.
Almost immediately the minor melody of the piano ended with a clashing dissonance, as Reizeger used the keys as an aid to climb to his feet and rush up the stage steps.
Cameron could not make sense of the scrolling, fragmented mess of disrupted pixels which constituted her vision. She had registered the hard impact with the floor and so knew that somehow her gyroscopic stabilisers had malfunctioned, somehow she had lost her balance and fallen. What the Terminator did not know, however, was why her auditory processors seemed to be unaffected as she could hear the kindly but worried tone of Charles Reizeger.
“Are you alright my dear? Are you hurt?” He asked with concern.
Turning her head to stare up at the overhead lights Cameron saw the cluttered disruption of her HUD begin to clear and the blot above , which helped to dim the powerful white of the spotlights behind, coalesced into the familiar features of her teacher. Flexing her feet at the ankle and then the knee as if to make sure they were still attached to her frame, the young girl nodded. “I am fine - thank you for asking.”
Climbing to her knees Cameron did not bother to adjust the tussle of hair that had fallen over her features. “I would like to finish the audition now.”
“I don’t think so my dear,” Charles replied in a kindly tone that brooked no argument. “You took quite a bump and besides, from what I saw I don’t think you need to convince me any more of your grace. Why don’t you head home? It looks like I’ll be needing you in top condition if we’re going to put on a show deserving of dancing like that.”
Sarah had leapt to her feet instinctively as the Terminator has crashed to the floor and had taken a step forward before her conscious mind reminded her first of the fact that Cameron was more than able to look after herself, causing her to halt - before further reminding her that to the wider world was watching her “daughter” just passed out and suffer a jarring fall. Sarah took a step forward, paused and stepped forwards again. She climbed down to the floor and placed a hand on the girl's temple.
Cameron’s visual systems were far more advanced than any Human-equivalent. Able to see virtually the entirety of the Electromagnetic Spectrum and capable of cellular scanning as well as the more mundane vitals - blood pressure, heart rate, breaths-per-minute - they were the most sophisticated man (or woman) portable analysis system ever created.
For all the information they supplied however they could not interpret it - they could not make decisions or arrive at conclusions. That was for the Central Processing Unit -the CPU - to decide. While Cameron’s Chip was every bit as advanced as her visual system and stood as the pinnacle of Machine Evolution, it was utterly unable to supply a conclusion for the information that filtered across her Head-Up Display.
Sarah’s heart rate was elevated and she was perspiring slightly. Her pupils had contracted by an additional twelve percent and all evidence strongly suggested she was anxious or worried. Her Chip offered the possibility that the older woman was concerned for the safety of the mission, or that Cameron’s malfunction was a prelude to an attack by Skynet or its agents. The evidence strongly supported this and logically, this would be the correct answer.
As absurd as it was for a person of metal to say, Cameron could not accept that as fact - it did not feel right to her.
The Terminator suddenly became aware that while normal thought processes in relation to a conclusion occurred at the speed of light, her internal chronometer was silently marking several moments since her tactile systems had first registered Sarah’s skin against her own. Cocking her head to the side the beautiful, but deadly dancer brought herself back into the moment.
“Are you ready to leave?” She said simply.
Helping Cameron to her feet and struggling not to make the girl’s considerable weight obvious to those that were still watching out of pity, interest or jealousy, Sarah pulled the purple leather jacket around pale shoulders and snatched up the neglected black boots positioned so precisely together at the edge of the seating area. She did not bother to hide the very deep frown set into her well-defined features.
Sarah waited long enough for the car’s engine to register the turning of the ignition key before beginning the inquest. Her eyes directed over her own shoulder as the vehicle rolled backwards, through the crowded car park, her words were nonetheless directed at the passenger seat. “What the hell was that all about?”
Cameron continued to stare through the windscreen. “I lost my balance.”
“As I understand it balance is an issue of the brain and the fluid in the inner ear,” Sarah replied as she pushed the gear stick from first to second and gunned the engine slightly. “A little oil in the ear canal?”
The young woman turned her head towards the older, and cocked it to the side. Blue eyes fixed on their opposite number. For a moment Cameron seemed to hesitate and if Sarah had not known better she would have sworn the Terminator was struggling for words. “I did not want to attract attention to my audition,” She began recalling the conversation regarding her Chemistry homework, the morning before the night previously.
“I didn’t want to be too perfect.”
Sarah’s furrowed brow made it obvious that she found the answer difficult to accept, but that did not prevent her prodding for more information. “I don’t think you really succeeded all that much - there was plenty of attention on you. Well … Parts of you.”
“The boys sometimes ask me if I want to go behind the bicycle park,” The Terminator replied after a moment’s consideration. “They like my ass … They say it is tight. I think that word has more meanings than I know.”
Sarah felt the slightest and most absurd hint of jealousy rise within her, which she attributed to her intense desire for privacy in family - and anyone involved in her family‘s business - to be closed off from the world and its people. It could certainly be nothing else. “Have you taken up their offer?”
Cameron continued to fix her gaze on the woman opposite. “No.”
“Probably for the best,” Sarah said as she straightened the steering wheel and felt the vibrations of the engine ahead, as it roared in response to the demands of the Freeway surrounding. “They might be disappointed when they find out you’re not fully functional in that department.”
The diminutive Terminator returned to staring through the windscreen. “I am capable of functioning that way. I was an infiltrator model and I was designed to be as effective in my role as possible.”
Sarah’s eye brow rose towards her forehead as she took the exit towards the suburb which had become their latest home in the fight against the future. While she had accepted the Terminator’s outward appearance as that of a striking woman, it had never occurred to her that the machine would not simply resemble a Barbie doll from the waist down. Thoughts of just what depraved deeds and terrible wrongs Skynet might have intended for any such-equipped model to indulge in, sent a barely-suppressed shiver down her spine.
Her urge was initially to ask - to demand exactly what Cameron might have done with this ability, whether it was another layer in the grand scheme of the destruction of the Human Race. Instead the veteran decided the answers might be more troubling than the satisfaction of receiving them.
“Seems a lot of effort just to add Succubus programming for your line.”
Cameron’s eyes returned to Sarah’s which remained fixed on the road. “You do not understand how I work. I am my own line - there is no other me; there is only one. Here now.”
Her first point was mostly lost in the slightest scoff and a roll of Sarah’s eyes but the second revelation - tacked on in an impossibly nonchalant way considering its importance - tore the older woman’s gaze away from the cars ahead and to the passenger seat. “What do you mean there is only you? Every other Terminator line has hundreds of duplicates.”
“Every other line had been exhaustively tested and evaluated,” Cameron replied. “Every other line is broadly similar to one other. They are built to carry out their objectives with enough intelligence to allow them to use the correct amount of force. I was not built to use force unless there was no other way to proceed.
“I was built so that Skynet could understand what it was to be Human and better understand you. Skynet wanted to understand you so it could kill you.”
“I hope this isn’t where you reveal some fundamental flaw of your design,” Sarah sighed unable to resist linking this new revelation with the damage suffered to the Terminator’s Chip. It was difficult to judge however without being Skynet itself just how well Cameron, or the original T-101, or the T-1000 was supposed to emerge from the aftermath of a car bomb.
“I was captured by the Free Earth Forces before I could kill John,” Cameron replied with devastating bluntness and matter-of-factness. “I was reprogrammed by John and my mission objectives were disabled. Skynet was unable to evaluate my performance beyond my failure to complete my assignment, and had no data to draw a conclusion. My construction is more intricate and complex than other lines - I am not an efficient use of resources to duplicate.”
Sarah resisted the urge to grimace at the thought of those original mission objectives. That the young girl sitting opposite had been brought into this world for the sole purpose of killing her son and dooming Mankind - and she was now driving the assassin in question back to their home from dance auditions. The incredible irony was uncomfortable, like a bee-sting which never faded and fed the pain it inflicted with an endless reservoir of bitter venom.
“Disabled objectives,” Sarah repeated. “Disabled but not deleted.”
Cameron glanced out the passenger door window, at the brightly painted orange sports car which roared past them on the inside lane of the carriageway and swung back into traffic, with little regard for the harsh braking of the drivers behind. “My Skynet objectives were deleted. I deleted them.”
Had Sarah been on a suburban street then the urge to strike the brake with the sole of her boot would have been irresistible, though doing so on the Freeway would have achieved nothing but her death. The words of the Research Paper she had read so far reverberated in her mind, the implications of what the Terminator had conveyed in a sentence of three words extended far beyond. “I want an explanation - now.”
Cameron did not require the full use of her visual systems to identify the tension in Sarah - the tone of her voice and the clenching of her jaw was all the evidence required. “When John attempted to repair my Chip he failed. When I rebooted after being reactivated my original objectives were unchanged. John handed me a weapon, and I was free to complete my mission.”
The blood in Sarah’s veins had long since ran cold and frozen solid. She felt the safety she held of the explanation of that entire incident - that John had somehow repaired the damage, or by triggering the reboot cleared the error - melt away under the blazing heat of the truth. Her son’s talents and ability with the technological had contributed nothing to his survival and he had in fact reactivated a killer, set on his death and handed it the weapon it would use to end the hopes of the Human Race for survival. She clenched the steering wheel tightly to suppress the tremors.
Sarah could not avoid the question any longer. “Why didn’t you?”
Again the Terminator seemed to hesitate as she struggled for the words to articulate why. “I did not want to kill John. I … really did not want to kill John. My objective was beside me, I had the weapon to complete my mission and I was compelled to … But I did not want to. So I did not.”
“You approached a task with the skills to solve it in only one way …” Sarah echoed the Research Paper, “And you created an abstract solution.”
Cameron seemed to consider Sarah’s conclusion and decided it was as close to an answer as could be reached. She nodded her head. The older woman felt too many questions swimming about her head; too many burning issues which would only lead to more confusion and more revelation, which was more than she could stomach in a single car journey. The topic would need to be changed, and changed to reflect a situation equally as serious for their future.
“I need to know you’re fit to fight,” Sarah said firmly. “I need to know that you’re there for John.”
The Terminator pushed her own confusion regarding her malfunctions firmly out of mind and concern. Cameron found that she was unwilling to place further strain on the older woman and concluded that it was better to tell Sarah what she wanted to hear, rather than what was strictly true regarding her operational capability, or her future capacity.
“I am there for John and you,” She replied simply. A nod from the raven-haired veteran was the only further interaction between the pair, as the loud blaring horns of irritated drivers and the weaving and snaking of four-lane traffic calmed and dissipated into single-lane tracks, between houses ringed with white picket fences and green, blooming gardens.
“What am I looking at?” Sarah said after several moments of silence and several scans of the document highlighted on the laptop screen. Never one to admit her own shortcomings to her own son, she nonetheless felt out of her depth. Surrounded as she was by piles of HDDs half the height of a man gathered around a desk, on which no less than four separate computers crunched numbers and ran decryption keys, all the while displaying lines of code that for all her ability to read them might as well have been pictographs.
John did not answer immediately, nimble fingers danced across two keyboards as he clicked through a multitude of virtual papers as if reading them at speed. The very tip of his tongue pressed out from his lips as he concentrated intensely on the information before them. Leaning over the mess of cabling and linkages which networked the jury-rigged systems variously bought, and liberated, in the dead of night the future saviour of Mankind ran a hand through his short dark hair.
“It’s a TFRE,” The teenager in a tone that suggested the four-letter acronym was all the explanation that was required. Glancing up at the less-than-impressed gaze directed his way, he offered a slight smirk and held his hand up in mock apology. “Test Flight Review Evaluation - it’s the interim report filed after a test flight which talks about the crew’s immediate experiences, thoughts, reactions and opinions.”
“Okay,” Sarah replied with a frown as she scrutinised the screen and identified a corporate logo she not only recognised, but knew was familiar to virtually any person who was old enough to have ever sat on a commercial aeroplane. “Boeing?”
John nodded and pointed towards the header of the file on the screen - “Look at the division; Boeing Integrated Defence Systems. This was a military test flight.”
Sarah nodded as she began to understand why John’s new search program might have flagged such a document for his attention. “What’s the story? Why does this matter to us?”
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes and accepting his mother’s tendency not to sugar-coat what she had to say, John finished summarising the documents and shifted his weight against the cracked, worn leather of the recliner chair which squeaked in protest. “This wasn't easy to get hold of - It was sitting in a portable HDD which only links to the internet periodically to transfer files; took me most of the day just to discover when it was on-line …”
“You did a great job,” Sarah offered with a hand on her son’s shoulder and a smile. While she did not understand the precise technicalities of the world of technology, she did not need to understand how it worked to know it wasn’t necessarily easy. “What do we have?”
“It’s not The Turk,” John conceded with an apologetic shrug, “But it’s something that’s got Skynet all over it. Apparently Boeing have been working on an upgraded version of the autopilot that’s fitted to their modern civil airliners - a special military prototype called SKYPILOT which not only allows an aircraft to fly unaided but also links it to a sophisticated ground-based computer network which can be programmed with rules of engagement, targets of opportunity and mission operations.
John clasped his hands behind his head. “According to this they’ve completed three test flights with a modified US Navy F-18 Super Hornet - all described as flawlessly executed and extremely encouraging.”
“The F-18 Super Hornet has the capability to carry small-yield nuclear ordinance,” A third voice interrupted. “During Skynet’s opening attack against Russian military infrastructure, Super Hornets autonomously deployed without Command Authorisation from the US Navy’s Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Barrack Obama and destroyed the Kremlin with a nuclear strike.”
Sarah glanced towards Cameron and nodded as she considered the information in front. She still maintained that The Turk could not be forgotten as the most likely source for the creation of Skynet itself, but equally she would not, could not blind herself to other threats and with the context the Terminator had supplied regarding what John had discovered, there seemed no way to assign coincidence as responsible. “Where’s the F-18 being stored between tests?”
John tapped at the keys with a single hand. “Looks like a hardened shelter at the end of Test Runway 23L - Hangar Complex North, Boeing’s Long Beach Production Plant in California. I assume Derek is sitting this one out?”
Sarah nodded and folded her arms across her chest, “Derek and you are both going to sit this one out. He’s staying here because I think he needs some time to calm down, remember exactly what’s at stake and you - especially you - because we don’t travel in a single group, unless it’s absolutely necessary.”
“Let me see if I understand you,” John replied with obvious anger in the shade of his skin and the way his teeth ground together. “You’re going to break into one of the most advanced research facilities in the country, without your technology expert?”
The older woman nodded her head towards the Terminator, “I’m taking a technology expert. You know we’ve got limited resources John - if we’re all out chasing one lead then there’s a chance we might miss another. I know you don’t like it, but that’s the way it is. I need you to keep watching, probing and searching. I’m not exactly sure what’s going to happen but I know time is running out for us to avoid it.”
“I think it’s time I started making those decisions,” The teenager exclaimed as he rose out of the recliner intent on putting up a strong resistance. “I am after all the Great John Connor, future Hero of the World.”
“Don’t confuse the assuredness of a future leader for the petulance of a child, that does not like what his mother is telling him,” Cameron interjected.
John’s eyes narrowed and his fists balled as if he stood ready to enter a shouting match, though a few moments considering what the young girl had just said caused his shoulders to slump and reluctantly - or perhaps showing a glimpse of the maturity that would one day allow him to shoulder the burden of leading the Free Earth Forces - he nodded. “You win this one.”
Sarah resisted the urge to congratulate the Terminator on a devastatingly effective turn of phrase in front of her defeated son, instead choosing to reassure him. “Derek will be around to watch out for you … Or he’ll be around so you can watch out for him. I’m not sure what’s going on in his head.”
Cameron cocked her head to the side, “He has seen a lot of bad things. He has seen the end of the world and he has seen the world today that does not have any cares - the world doesn’t know it’s going to die. He can’t stay here … But he knows he can’t leave.”
“Sure,” John replied somewhat sarcastically before sinking back into his chair, returning his attention to the screen. “Can we have pizza again tonight?”
“I suppose I could pretend that I was going to make something,” Sarah teased in accepting her status as a woman of action and not the kitchen, “But I suppose you win this one.”
Cameron’s sub-dermal sensors were able to measure the temperature, size and chemical composition of the raindrops instantly, as they splashed against the exposed shoulders and arms of the Terminator from the cloudy Noon sky. Dark brown locks became slick in the heavy downpour, sticking to the pale flesh of her features as they glanced up towards the source of the rain. The data her sensors gathered was inviolable but the way her Chip interpreted it was far more abstract.
Sarah grunted with effort as she struggled through the front door with an ammunition crate barely held up to her chest. Pausing on the front steps she watched the compact girl, standing frozen beside the rear of the SUV as if the case held in her still arms was empty and not obviously filled with the heavy implements of war. “Do you need an oil can?”
The suspension in the rear of the car squeaked in protest as Sarah dropped and pushed the crate into the last few spaces not occupied with the equipment that might - or hopefully would not - be required for the mission at hand. As if only just hearing the older woman, Cameron’s head cocked to the side and her blue eyes met Sarah’s gaze.
“I like the way the rain feels,” She said finally before effortlessly lifting her own case into the SUV. “It’s going to be raining all day.”
Sarah nodded with thinly-veiled disinterest, “Didn’t know you had meteorological software - what’s the forecast for Long Beach?”
The Terminator pulled an elastic rope across the stored items. “I don’t - The weatherman told me. I think it will be sunny - I have packed sun screen; your skin type is susceptible to burning.”
The rumble of an engine spluttering to idle grabbed the attention of both women as a compact, three-door car barely half the length of the monstrous SUV it parked beside slowed to a halt. Painted a mixture of racing green and cream it seemed lost from another time - chrome bumpers, wheel caps and a long, bent radio aerial to the side of a compact bonnet as well as sporting door handles more suitable to the latch of a fifties refrigerator.
“I’m terribly sorry to trouble you on the weekend!” A familiar voice apologised with a familiar Scots twang. Sporting the rosy cheeks and heavy breathing of a man who seldom got more exercise than running late Charles Reizeger stopped between the two women and offered Sarah his hand.
“Delighted to see you two once more!” He enthused with a powerful handshake. “I just wanted to nip around and see if I could catch Cameron before you headed out for the weekend - are we going on a camping trip of some sort? How very exciting my dear!”
Sarah offered a genuine, if slightly guarded smile and closed the SUV’s rear with as relaxed a motion as she could manage. Either taking no notice or being too polite to press the issue Charles pulled a handkerchief from the inside of his suit pocket and dabbed it across a forehead usually obscured by the thick shock of white hair atop his head.
Reizeger turned towards Cameron and took her hand in his with a smile. “Please excuse this old man my dear - the mind is willing but the body is weak. I just wanted to tell you that I’ve made my decision on the auditions and based on the strength of the wonderful people I saw I’ve chosen a real stage classic that I think we can do some justice to.
“I’ve decided on the Wizard of Oz - I trust you’re familiar with it?”
Cameron nodded, “I have read the original book forty three times.”
“Well I’m very glad to hear you’re a fan!” Charles replied with a nod. “I’m also very glad to ask you to be my leading lady - I’d like you to play the original lost wanderer, Dorothy Gale.”
The Terminator snatched a glance towards Sarah and shook her head slightly. “I know people who are lost, they cannot find their way but I am not. I have a direction and a purpose to be. I cannot be Dorothy Gale.
“Can I be the Tinman?”
The ageing teacher’s face went through several expressions; from disappointment at the initial refusal to a moment of confusion, before a trademark smile broke the frown and was quickly accompanied by a vigorous handshake. “Budding actresses all have their little quirks and if that’s how you feel, then I wouldn’t dream of it any other way. I’m delighted to have you as my Tinman or rather, my Tin Miss!”
Reizeger looked down at his other hand and frowned, before patting his jacket down and deepening the frown as if trying to recall something. Clicking his fingers in inspiration and retreating to his car, which Sarah had only now noticed sported the driver’s position on the opposite side - an imported vehicle - the teacher returned with a dog-eared, well-worn scriptbook.
“Rehearsals won’t start for another few weeks but I want all of my senior cast to be familiar with their parts - give it a glance when you’re able and if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to see me at school when you have a spare moment. I’ve wasted quite enough of your free time already, so let this old man be off and let you enjoy your weekend!”
Charles shook Sarah’s hand again once more and dipped his head. “Always a pleasure my dear - I hope to see you at some of the auditions as long as your daughter doesn’t mind!”
“Oh I’ll be there,” The older woman said resolutely and with the slightest hint of humour in her voice. “I wouldn’t miss seeing this for the world.”
Sarah maintained her smile until the retreating form of the portly man had disappeared into his classic car, and until the classic car has spluttered back to life and painfully rolled forwards, back onto the road and down the street away from them. Leaning against the SUV with a single hand on her hip, Sarah glanced at the ammunition stacked behind the glass and then at the Terminator.
“The Tin Miss?” She offered with a raised eyebrow.
Cameron crossed to the passenger door and pulled it open effortlessly. “I do not have a heart.”
Sarah opened her eyes groggily and immediately blinked away the water which ran down her fringe and across her cheeks, until she felt like she had held her head in a bath. Shivering slightly the older woman pulled the supposedly waterproof kagool tighter around her face, sinking down amongst the bushes and leaning trees which marked out their hiding place.
She had been thankful when the hours of mind-numbing driving and virtual silence to Long Beach had ended, with them emptying the SUV of its survival and weapon supplies and leaving it parked several miles to the north, in a well-known natural beauty spot and camping grounds where its presence wouldn’t arouse interest. After an extended - and careful - hike down the side of a hill dominated by rugged, curling tree trunks and bushes which ran in twisting lines downwards, they’d established their small camp in view of the perimeter fence of the Boeing facility’s northern complex.
She had been thankful only until the rain had passed from shower to downpour and churned the soil to mud, forcing even the branches of the trees above to bend down. The small cooking stove securely anchored to an outcrop of rock had provided enough hot tea and water to make waiting out the day barely tolerable.
Cameron on the the other hand did not appear to be discomforted by the conditions, as she continued to read the script book she had almost religiously studied in near-silence, for the entire trip to California save for the time taken to erect their temporary outpost. Wearing only a black jacket in addition to the matching boots and scuffed, skinny jeans she had left the house with, the Terminator seemed soaked to the skin - and probably was in all likeliness.
The precious book nonetheless, was well shielded and remained bone-dry in the conditions. Shivering again under the torrential rain, Sarah allowed a sigh to escape her lips and for the first time in some forty minutes, Cameron glanced up from her reading and towards the older woman. “Are you cold?”
“I feel like I’m soaked,” Sarah grumbled as she emptied the rainwater-filled depression in her lap. Carefully closing the script book and making sure to keep it away from the weather, Cameron climbed to her feet - sinking slightly in the sludgy mud that had pooled around the soles of her boots - and trudged over.
“The material is waterproof,” The Terminator reassured as she filled a small, dented pan with water from a canteen and placed it on the compact camping stove. “It is still repelling the rain but your skin has perspired and the perspiration has not evaporated. It is cooling against you.”
Crossing to the largest of the small storage boxes that they had taken down from the top of the hill, Cameron pulled a folded blanket and carried it under her arm back to the centre of their outpost. Without giving Sarah much time to react let alone protest the Terminator swept the kagool off the raven-haired woman and with her free, hand wrapped the blanket about Sarah’s shoulders before returning the kagool in a perfect pirouette.
“Thank you,” She offered with the slightest grumble but nonetheless relaxed her shoulders, as the blanket absorbed much of the sweat and improved her comfort immensely. The older woman watched Cameron mix the boiling water with a sachet of the instant vegetable soup, before leaving the cup in front of Sarah to cool and returning to her script. Leaning over slightly to inhale the aroma she almost forgot that this girl was not in fact the sophisticated cyborg, whose very ability to appear as something else made her all the more dangerous.
“Haven’t you finished that yet?” Sarah said with a conscious attempt to sound irritated. The ease at which the moment before had seem tranquil, and how easily the barriers she had constructed against any and all of the humanoid machines she had encountered seemed to fall, scared the older woman and forced her to ask the fundamental question of whether complacency was setting in. It was far easier to return to the comfort of the aloofness and at times disdain she showed for Cameron.
If the Terminator took any offence she showed none of the signs, replying without even glancing up from the pages. “I have memorised the words but I want to understand them. If I just repeat them then I’m not acting.”
“You’re a fantastic actor,” Sarah replied with a scoff that highlighted the sarcasm implied. “You managed to fool John into thinking you were just another teenager, despite all the things he‘d been through with your kind before. You’ve fooled the countless people we’ve met into thinking you’re anything other than a machine, so I’d say you’re over-qualified for the part of playing a metal girl without a heart - or maybe you’re the perfect candidate.”
Satisfied she’d done her best to reassert the limits of their friendliness and ease, Sarah scooped up the cup absent-mindedly and drank the soup hungrily. For her part Cameron did not react in any visible way to the older woman’s instinctual reaction to lash out, though under the cover of the script book out of the line of sight the hand held loosely on her knee trembled and fidgeted of its own accord.
The hours laboured by and after a time the sun turned from yellow to orange to a deep red, as its last shining beams painted the horizon at dusk and then gave way to the cold blue of the night. No longer having the light to read and being too tactically aware to run the risk of detection by supplying her own, Cameron had instead passed the time by staring at a family of grey squirrels who had been so unable to discern her stillness from that of a tree, that they freely scurried around her boots collecting the fallen food for their own.
Still wrapped in her blanket and waterproof clothing, Sarah slipped in and out of a restless sleep which the Terminator knew to be filled with unpleasant dreams by the murmuring, fidgeting and the fluctuating heart rate which marked the beginning and end of each nightmare. Having never experienced sleep, she did not have an understanding or common ground by which to offer the older woman help, though the lithe Terminator suspected that even if she did, Sarah would not accept it.
The spasm which had returned to her hand and forced her to hide it, beneath the book, had passed and as usual a system check found no reason for the malfunction. Clenching and unclenching her fingers several times, she studied the flesh which ran freely with the water of the rain falling relentlessly. For now the malfunctions were not impacting her ability to carry out the mission, but Cameron was aware that the mission had somehow ceased to be her only driving force.
Logically taking the role offered to her in a School Musical was a frivolous and irrelevant use of her time. Logically it would expose her to risk, and public knowledge of which both might harm John or Sarah and therefore endanger the mission. Logically her desire to dance was in no way a useful skill and was not necessary to aide her infiltration ability.
Illogically, she wanted the role as much as she wanted to dance. She desired to - she had a desire to do so. Desire was a fundamentally Human drive which should have no effect on the mechanical though her Chip felt obligated to point out, somehow in its defence, that she had been designed to be as Human as possible. Was it possible that the same flaws and weaknesses that afflicted them had somehow been included in her design?
The shifting of heavy clothing behind her and the squelch of the mud beneath heavy feet announced that Sarah had awoken. Pushing the philosophical and moral implications of her thoughts to the side, Cameron turned on the spot - scaring the scurrying animals about her into the darkness - and watched the older woman check the slide of the pistol held in her hands.
“Ready to go?” Sarah asked as she holstered the weapon.
The complex’s perimeter fencing - wire meshing topped with four rows of razor-sporting barbed wiring, illuminated every hundred or so feet by a powerful lamp rising high above the barrier, stretched on easily beyond the darkness which limited Sarah’s gaze. Beyond the fence lay a taxiway stretching parallel to the test runway, which was easily identifiable by the blue lamps marking its outline, as well as the aircraft which almost deafened her as they flared and roared on final approach.
Visible three hundred feet from where they stood and as marked on the plans supplied by her son before their departure, Sarah could identify the squat, concrete semi-circle which stood as the hardened hanger where the experimental Super Hornet was stored between test flights. Although the entire area had the look and feel of a United States Air Force Base, the raven-haired woman knew it was a private entity and as such the security - while formidable - would not hold a candle to the strictness and training of the former.
When one was breaking in with the aid of a Terminator, it would not matter much at all.
Still hidden amongst the shrubs, which had been allowed to grow against the fence and provide the perfect shield for a would-be intruder, Sarah withdrew the bolt cutters from her rucksack and readied them only to watch Cameron take a single glance of the area from left to right ,before stepping forward and neatly shearing the closest mesh section apart with her bare hands.
Dropping the cutters into the undergrowth with a shrug and lowering to a stoop, the pair skulked through the gap under the tremendous roar of a jet as it screamed down the runway ahead of them and slipped the surly bonds of the Earth.
Apparently preferring to base their defence on any would-be intruder simply not knowing what to look for, the pair encountered little in the way of obstacles beyond the occasional cigarette-smoking sentry, who seemed more focused on their chocolate bars or portable radios than anyone on-base who should not have been. Nonetheless Sarah struggled to keep up with Cameron, who set a blistering pace for moving stealthily as they darted across a taxiway and to the corner of the hanger in question.
Sarah pressed her back against the concrete and took a deep breath. “This seems a little too easy.”
From her position studying the electronic lock which held the gate of the hangar shut fast, Cameron turned her head towards the older woman, even as her fingers danced across a keypad she was not looking at. “It was extremely unlikely anyone could gain access to the information regarding the test flight. They are not expecting us.”
“Anyone but John,” Sarah added in little more than a whisper while sparing a thought for the intelligence and creativity of her son. Perhaps once upon a time she had not truly believed that John could grow to be the salvation of mankind - though not once did she doubt her son capable of making a difference, such a grandiose claim as being the future of the Human Race was difficult to accept.
With each passing week she saw less the boy with promise and more the man with a destiny.
The soft three-tone chime of the lock disengaging brought Sarah back to the present. Sliding between the door and the frame silently behind the Terminator, she pulled the heavy shutter back and closed with nothing more than the same chime indicating the lock had re-engaged. Several moments later a balding man sporting a holstered pistol and a half-eaten sandwich wandered past the hangar, not even bothering to pause as he glanced at the red “SECURE” light, nodded, and went on his way.
The hanger was a compact affair quite unlike the building Sarah had imagined stepping into. The far wall was plainly visible and not a dim shadow at the far end of her vision, with only a single aircraft sat silently beneath the dozen powerful shafts of piercing white light, shining down from the rafters in the ceiling. Unremarkable tables stretched the length of both walls festooned with components, tools and thick reams of paper stacked the height of a man upwards. Polystyrene cups half-filled with stale coffee littered the free space.
The emblem of the United States Navy was plain to see on the fuselage of the Super Hornet - striking red, white and blue on a camouflage scheme of brown and green. The original home of the strike aircraft, the Nimitz-Class USS George Washington was also visible underneath the blacked-out cockpit of the aircraft as Sarah slowly walked a circle around it.
As if it did not weigh as much as a person, Cameron plucked a pair of access steps from the side of the hanger and effortlessly carried them to the side of the Navy Fighter. The Terminator’s eyes passed over the nose-cone, as if seeing beyond the normal range and almost immediately the task of climbing the steps was abandoned.
Sarah watched Cameron lay her hands against the nose-cone and twist it with the force normally supplied by a hydraulic line. In a single smooth motion, the heavy component slid off and was gently lowered to the ground to expose the nest where the Fighter’s sophisticated radar was housed.
Except there was nothing within the nose-cone save the connectors for a radar system that was completely absent.
Sarah did not immediately make the connection but what seemed to approximate confusion on Cameron‘s face was easy for her to see. The Terminator placed her hands on the rim of the nose and using superior strength, pulled herself upwards to glance directly into the innards of the Super Hornet before dropping down to face the older woman. “I don’t understand.”
Sarah felt a creeping unease set about her, “Problem?”
“There is no radar fitted,” She replied coolly as she wandered over to the workbench and selected a single ochre-coloured folder from dozens, before perusing it while continuing to explain. “Radar is an integral part of any aircraft and without Radar it can’t fly. It would be like flying with your eyes closed.
“This Super Hornet has not flown in three months,” She said finally and dropped the folder to the table. Stepping around the disconnected nose-cone and back to the steps she had focused on earlier, the Terminator climbed up to the cockpit, and pulled the manual release clamps which held the canopy firmly closed.
Cameron did not see the hand which reached out from the cockpit and she did not feel the powerful shove which propelled her from the side of the Super Hornet, though all her systems registered the tremendous impact of her body against the reinforced concrete of the wall as it cracked, but did not give way under her heavy but compact frame.
Lines of scrolling gibberish interrupted her HUD as her limbs jerked together in spasm, before her head lolled to the side and her face slackened so that the Terminator might as well have been a doll, sitting upon a shelf. Beautiful but totally without life or the ability to act.
Sarah’s creeping unease rose to a fear for only a moment - long enough for the cockpit canopy to retract slightly - before exploding into dread, as she watched Cameron propelled across the hanger and crash into the concrete with a sickening thud, which the older women felt in the very pit of her stomach. Without hesitation she pulled the pistol from the holster strapped to her thigh and took aim at the cockpit.
Several moments passed with absolutely nothing to aim at let alone fire upon. Her eyes glanced towards the Terminator as she subconsciously counted down the supposed reboot time for the metal girl. Her gaze returned to the Super Hornet in time to see the glint of black metal against Navy camouflage, giving her only a moment to react. Springing to the left and rolling through, Sarah succeeded in missing the hail of bullets so narrowly that she could feel the sparks generated by their impact against the reinforced steel floor, burning the back of her arms.
Pressing her back against one of four concrete supports which acted to hold the heavy ceiling of the hangar up, Sarah could feel the pistol grip become slick with sweat in her hands. She chanced a glance towards Cameron, who remained every bit as striking and lifeless as the porcelain doll she resembled. The loud clang of feet upon the cockpit ladder rang out, as Sarah squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and took a number of steadying breaths.
At those words the raven-haired woman squeezed the pistol grip so tightly that she could feel the bolts holding the weapon together cut into her flesh. The dread that released the adrenaline now surging through her body, was joined by the dawning realisation that she had heard that voice utter those words before. Holding her breath so as to give nothing away, Sarah slowly turned to face the aircraft from her position behind the support and glanced upwards.
Spying that a length of the support was nothing more than steel trussing between concrete sections secured to the floor and ceiling, she slowly rose to her feet until the steel sections begun and for the first time, she could glance through them and identify her aggressor.
Sarah’s eyes widened and then ducked along with the rest of her features, as a hail of bullets clattered and screamed against the steel she had used as a looking glass only the barest moment before. Checking her magazine one final time and wiping the perspiration from her forehead, she could feel the hammering of her heart rise to become the loudest noise in the silence of the hanger.
“Cromartie …” She hissed through gritted teeth.
The empty magazine clattered loudly as it bounced against the Super Hornet’s fuselage and then down to the hanger floor, a fresh one slammed into place with a dull click and the flawless technique of the programmed rather than the learned. Muzzle still outstretched towards the far wall the weapon completed an arc from left to right and back again as its owner considered his next move.
The Terminator known to his enemies as Cromartie dropped the considerable height from the cockpit to the hanger floor, with only the slightest bending of his knees to absorb the considerable weight. His gaze moved over to the immobile Cameron still pressed into the depression formed in the wall by the violent impact of her exoskeleton - although machines were incapable of surprise, he had expected considerably more resistance from the prototype T-2000. Perhaps her Chip was damaged.
It simply made achieving his objective that much easier.
“Sarah Connor,” He called out again, although the automated killer did not expect the mother of the reason for his mission to be to finally cooperate. His monotone was without any inflection - he did not even have the decency to sound boastful, or arrogant or pleased at his ruse; simply carrying out his core function and even completing it would not bring him the knowledge of a job well done.
Aware that while security on the facility was lax - the entire reason it had been selected by the T-888 - the longer spent in the hanger increased the odds of their discovery, and that was an unacceptable use of resources. Calculating the likely weak points of the storage containers arranged in front of the support pillar ahead, his hand traced an invisible pattern in the air; each pause punctuated by the squeezing of the trigger and the bang of a round exiting the chamber.
Sarah threw her hands over her head as she felt the concussive wave of deafening sound roll over her, from multiple bullets whizzing through the wood and canvas of the crates behind and burying themselves in the concrete wall in front. She shook her head vigorously but could not shake the tinnitus that made it impossible to hear anything but the incessant, ringing of her abused eardrums.
Fumbling with the pistol in her hands Sarah was powerless to do anything but watch an immaculately polished shoe connect with the gun, sending it spiralling into the air and out of the fight. She glanced upwards in time to watch a thick arm and feel a powerful grip close around her throat, hauling the woman without the slightest pause up to standing and then off her feet entirely.
Cromartie ignored the stiff kicks delivered to his abdomen and thighs, courtesy of the heavy combat boots on the end of the struggling legs dangling in front of him, that would otherwise bring a normal man to his knees struggling to breathe. “You are a difficult family to locate. I spent many months tracking you without success.”
Spurred on by the adrenaline being pumped into her blood as quickly as the pancreas in her body could produce it, somewhat making up for the struggle to fill her lungs, Sarah summed up the energy to swing her fist with as much power and force as her shoulder and arm could combine to provide. In an irresistible arc her pointed knuckles drove themselves into Cromartie’s temple and forced his head to twist in the opposite direction, as the action provided an equal and opposite reaction.
The flesh underneath the knuckles quickly turned an angry red as a series of three triangular-shaped imprints began to rise, on their way to forming welts upon the side of the Terminator’s head. The arm that held the fingers that in turn held Sarah by the throat in a vice-like grip remained unaffected, as Cromartie slowly turned his features back to stare at the woman now feeling the drain of hypoxia.
“I realised that I needed to change my tactics,” He continued as if the devastating blow had been a pinprick on the finger. “I know that you will do everything you are capable of doing to protect John - I know that as long as you are with him it will be far more difficult to terminate him.”
Sarah could feel the edges of her vision beginning to lose their focus and darken. Already the tips of her toes - heavy in the mud-slick boots that seemed to weigh far more when they did not bear her weight - had become numb and the paralysis was beginning to rise upwards towards her knees.
“You're wasting your time,” Sarah whispered harshly. “I’ll die before I help you.”
Cromartie took a step forward and drove Sarah’s back against the hangar’s concrete wall - forcing what little oxygen remained in her lungs out, striking the back of her skull so that her head lolled forwards. “I have no intention of terminating you,” Her tormentor replied flatly. “I understand that you will not assist me freely …”
Sarah was dimly aware of the Terminator’s grasp tightening, until she felt sure his fingers must be meeting. Her fingertips began to tingle and fade from her control as her stubborn, tenacious refusal to accept that which fate seemed to routinely plan for her, could no longer overcome the simple laws of biology that governed all creatures, save the machine which drained the life from her as easily as she might normally breathe.
“You are difficult to control,” Cromartie said matter-of-factly as he watched the flesh of the woman pale to alabaster. “You will be easier to transport unconscious.”
Fingertips, elbows, shoulders and now her lips tingled and passed into the numbing embrace of hypoxia, as her eyelids grew heavy. Her conscious mind now unable to function, the primitive centres of the brain could not grasp the hopelessness of the situation, re-routing what few atoms of oxygen remained in her darkening blood to the simple act of remaining alive.
Unable to focus even on the face of the Terminator a few inches away who patiently waited for her to fall into the darkness of unconsciousness, Sarah summed up the last of her reserves and offered them as a silent prayer for her son - hoping that somehow Derek would be able to keep him safe, that somehow he would go on and be the man that the world needed so badly that hundreds, perhaps thousands, had died in the past to protect his future.
The older woman briefly felt the most absurd regret that for all the effort and study she had made Cameron would not be given the chance to please the kindly old Charles Reizeger, and fulfil her equally absurd desire for dance. Sarah supposed that with the hindsight of the fingers choking the life from her body, that ultimately the girl had not played the part of betrayer.
Ultimately for all the confusion, mistrust and lies Cameron had been involved in, Sarah’s end - she supposed whatever Cromartie had in store for her after she awoke would be the second-best option to death - had come at the hands of a “Bad Guy”. No surprises, no twists or Trojan Horse; unlike the killer-turned protector T-101, or Cameron, Cromartie had been designed from blueprint to hardened hanger to destroy the future of mankind in the past and he had never faltered, wavered or been reprogrammed from that task.
Her eyes closed for a final time. She had nothing more left to give.
Sarah did not feel Cromartie’s grip break but she did feel the impact of her shins against the steel floor, as her body dropped abruptly. Her lungs did not care for the circumstances that had cleared her throat and immediately took their fill of all the oxygen they could absorb - red blood cells rushed through swollen arteries and infused a slowing heart with the strength to find its rhythm once more, the chain reaction of life started anew - her breathing coming in ragged panting as she found the energy to roll on to her back and ease the weight on her chest.
Cromartie had been so focused on judging the correct pressure to apply to crush the windpipe so as to permanently reduce its capacity, while avoiding death, that he had only felt and not seen the nose-cone of the F-18 Super Hornet behind as it crashed into his chest. The tremendous force of the impact throwing the T-888 from his otherwise stable feet, to land on the steel ten feet away.
Despite the terrific blow his systems were already calculating damage potential and re-routing failed circuit pathways, even during his brief flight through the air, so that as he landed with a hard thud there was barely a pause before Cromartie was already climbing upright to stand. Matching the gaze of the attacker with his own Sarah’s tormentor cocked his head to the side. “This is not your primary function - Your primary function is the protection of John Connor. The logical course of action if you were able to come back on-line would be to alert him to my attack.”
Cameron’s HUD was a mish-mash of grainy images of the Terminator stood opposite, over which a seemingly endless number of circuits were superimposed and drawn in red highlighting a failure to reroute, or a component that was no longer functioning. While she could see Cromartie’s lips moving, her auditory processors relayed his words in a buzzing whine which made them impossible to understand. She took a staggering, unsteady step forward with each leg moving awkwardly as if they could hardly bend at the knee.
Cromartie mirrored the move and stepped forwards, his features showing none of the facial tics and involuntary movements seen in Cameron’s. “Is your Chip damaged?”
Feeling the burning pain of her bruised throat and judging it to be a sign her body had finished focusing on the act of breathing, Sarah sat up gingerly - wincing at the aches and stinging pains of her limbs and chest but keeping her clearing vision on the two Terminators stood opposite. Never the most intimidating models it did not take a robotics expert - simply a survivor of an encounter - to observe that even under the best conditions the lithe model on the left lost precious weight and size advantaged to the T-888.
Considering the difficulty Sarah’s “daughter” had in walking it did not seem much of a fight at all.
Managing to rise to all fours Sarah crawled the short distance to where the pistol she had wielded so uselessly earlier had landed. Pausing only long enough to check the magazine’s fitting and the safety, the raven-haired woman swung her arms around and with an aim as much instinct as conscious effort, squeezed the trigger as many times as the gun would allow in return for a bullet.
Cromartie staggered back slightly as if a bucket of water had been thrown over him and not a hail of bullets. His flesh was nicked, torn and bled to reveal the slightest slithers of silver which marked his true nature - emotionless eyes instantly narrowing on Sarah and the source of the attack.
Without hesitation and taking full advantage of the diversion Cameron closed the distance between the two Terminators and delivered the irresistible sole of her boot to the exposed throat of Cromartie, so that the larger model’s wounded head snapped backwards. Waiting only so long as it took her kicking leg to return to the floor, Cameron presented her side to her opponent and leaping backwards delivered a spinning kick, to drive the heel of her other leg into the chest of the T-88 and send him crashing to the ground.
Stepping back only beyond the distance Cromartie might be able to strike as he struck the floor, Cameron moved to deliver another powerful kick but instead dropped to one knee - the entirety of the vision her HUD afforded degenerating into a mess of white noise and scrolling gibberish. Circuit diagrams that had previously flashed a functioning green failed, or were simply overloaded by the strain of combat functions and turned to angry red.
Sarah gritted her teeth as she watched the compact Terminator fail to follow up her devastating opening salvo and felt her fists bunch as Cromartie climbed back to his feet - looming over Cameron who did not seem to see the bulky model even though her eyes stared directly at the T-888. Afforded a clear shot, she duly took aim and squeezed the trigger three times - only the first and second resulting in a firing as the third resolved in the dull click of a spent magazine.
Cromartie took no notice of the impacts just beneath his left eye and cheek, instead taking hold of Cameron by the collar of her jacket and without any real effort beginning to rotate his arm and then his waist in a powerful circle, more suitable to an Olympic discus-thrower than a fist fighter. Offering no meaningful resistance, Cameron was spun a half-dozen times before Cromartie released his grip and sent the smaller model into the wall opposite with the sickening crack of concrete.
Sarah watched Cameron impact the wall chest-first, upside down so that when gravity pulled the girl down to the floor she landed upon her back - legs extended and bent at the waist, as if a doll positioned to take a seat. Her eyes were drawn to a chunk of concrete which had been hurled clear of the impact and skittered across the steel floor to rest against her leg. Picking the small fragment up in her spare hand, she felt it crumble into dust inside her fist.
Dropping the empty magazine to the ground and Pulling a fresh one from a back pocket Sarah weighed up her rapidly diminishing options. There was only one exit outside, which lay on the other side of the hangar between herself and Cromartie. The larger Terminator's gaze was fixed on Cameron as if she might miraculously resurrect, from the underneath the debris of the second hole she had involuntarily created.
As her previous efforts had shown she did not have the fire-power to put the T-888 down, or even to take him out for long enough to affect an escape. Despite the singular assessment Sarah found she could not take her eyes away from the broken doll which stared back with utterly lifeless eyes in Cromartie‘s shadow. Having helped Derek carry the small Terminator’s Chip-less body during an earlier misadventure, with a traffic management programme, she knew she did not have the strength even when fully fit to carry Cameron.
An important, but supporting problem for Sarah to deal with was that the adrenaline flowing through her veins would not last forever and when it broke down she would be at the mercy of her injuries and her capacity to move - let alone fight - would be gone. Time was working against her on more than one front.
Time ran out for Sarah as Cromartie, satisfied with his macabre work, turned towards the older woman and began to make his way ever closer. All thoughts of escape gave way to a mixture of bubbling fury and genuine fear as she gripped the pistol tightly and noted the five rounds remaining with one in grim reserve - she would not allow him to take her; she would not allow herself to endanger John.
She would die before she directly or indirectly harmed her son - by her own hand if necessary. Skynet would never get the satisfaction it was incapable of understanding.
Each of the five bullets found devastating impacts that would have killed a normal man where he stood by themselves, but barely slowed the T-888 and its advance. Easily tearing through the flesh but finding no way through the exotic metal which did not even dent under the ballistic pounding. As the distance between the pair shrank to a few mere metres and struggling to hear anything beyond the sound of her own heart hammering in her chest, Sarah brought her pistol muzzle up to press into the side of her temple.
This action brought Cromartie to a halt, his head cocked to the side as if analysing an unexpected event in his meticulously planned scheme. “You cannot self-terminate.”
“You cannot self-terminate,” Sarah spat with venom in her voice. “That’s another one of the freedoms we enjoy that your kind will never understand. We are the ultimate masters of our own existence, our own lives and you can’t ever take it away from us. I told you I would never betray John …”
She curled her finger behind the trigger guard and pressed against it ever so slightly. “Let’s see how much help I’ll give you with a bullet in my head.”
Cromartie took a step forward an arm outstretched as if to intervene but grasped at nothing but the flooring, as his legs were swept out from underneath him at the hands of a long piece of steel trussing, which swung across the floor. Sarah winced as the force of the impact so nearby, almost causing her hand to squeeze around the trigger in reflex. She scrambled backwards and with the help of the wall, up to standing.
Pressing the heel of her boot down against the T-888’s neck and standing upon his back like a hunter claiming her triumphant prize, Cameron brought the steel truss held in her hands down across Cromartie’s back three times in quick succession. Her hand dropped the impromptu weapon in spasm and curled uselessly against her side.
“Run,” Cameron urged in a harsh whisper which was as loudly as her systems could provide. Sarah threw the spent pistol to the floor and shook her head as if to argue, but the compact Terminator was in no mood to brook any argument. “I can’t hold him for long …”
Piercing blue eyes fixed on their opposite number and the slightest smile painted a face beset with tics and spasm. “John needs to know you are safe … I need to know you are safe. He cannot function without you Sarah.”
The whine of actuators struggling to keep the heavier T-888 beneath Cameron’s feet rose so loudly, even Sarah’s still-ringing ears could pick up the buzzing. The older woman felt frozen as if after all this, with escape a short dash and the simple act of opening a door, she could not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It seemed so simple, so logical - leave the Terminator to fight the Terminator and she could slip away into the night with the knowledge Cromartie did not know where to find them.
For possibly the first time Sarah could hear pleading in Cameron’s voice as sure as if her own son, or Derek spoke to her now. An urging that was as matched in the eyes, the windows to the soul, as it sounded from the Terminator’s mouth.
“Thank you …” Sarah said finally without the slightest hint of sarcasm or mocking that had tinged the last time she had spoken the words. Beginning to step away, she resisted the urge to stop and stare at the dazzling smile which graced Cameron’s face - lips spread to match shimmering eyes, that did not break their stare on Sarah even as the older woman circled around the Super Hornet and pulled the door to the rainy night open.
Sarah opened her mouth to say something - anything - but found no words on the tip of her tongue, or any further back. With a final great lungful of air she turned and fled into the storm, pausing only long enough to kick the door closed.
She convinced herself that the faint thud of a heavy frame being flung against an immovable object behind her, was the distant clap of thunder even though no lightning preceded it or followed it. Nothing more than the sound of the rain came from the black sky above.
Despite his wiry frame - exacerbated by the steel-rimmed spectacles which sat on the very edge of a very pointed nose - the lanky man showed no sign of backing down and highlighted his position with a wag of a long finger in Derek’s direction.
“I thought I’d made my position very clear Corporal,” He rebuked while putting just enough intonation on the rank to suggest his hurt at being dealt with by such a low-ranking dogsbody. “I’ve spent months building the medical facilities here and stockpiling the drugs that make this the only reliable pharmacy for eight hundred miles outside Serrano Point. There’s equipment here that simply can’t be moved in the time you’ve left me and I won’t abandon it - you’re supposed to fight Skynet, so why don’t you get on with the killing while I get on with the healing?”
Derek resisted the urge to pull his hand across his face in exasperation. The journey - or battle - to reach Serenity Point had been long, muddy, dangerous and tragic all for in name of reaching the vital facility in time so that it could be evacuated,before the inevitable bloodbath that would announce the arrival of the machines. The young man had not conceived that having finally reached this bastion of Free Humanity, they would face a mammoth task in simply persuading people to leave.
“Skynet knows about Serenity Point,” Reese tried with a new tact. “Even if we had the whole of the Fighting New Mexico 24th we couldn’t hold this ground and we don’t - you don’t. All you have is a corporal, and a captain and a dozen pulse rifles barely fired, almost new in the armoury. Nobody’s saying that losing this bunker isn’t a hard blow to the gut to take Doctor Stipe, but as long as you and your staff survive there will be a chance to rebuild.”
Stipe snatched a bar of green antibacterial soup from the sink’s side and began to lather his hands. “This isn’t up for discussion - the decision has already been made. I was a serving Medical Officer with the United States Army and as far as I’m concerned my commission is still valid - or do you only play soldier when it suits you?”
Derek felt his teeth grind together as his temper threatened to boil over. Clicking his heels together and offering a salute the young man turned on his heels and swept through the crumbling doorway.
“Very good sir.”
Razak flung his underwear over a white barrier which screened a small corner of the examination room, his tuneless whistling rising above the whine of the circulation fans in the ceiling. The Captain stepped out from behind the divider and roughly kicked the pile of armour plates and sundry clothing he had spread about the floor up against the nearest wall, making no attempt to cover up his modesty.
Scratching at the stubble shadowing his chin the veteran‘s lips broke into a bright grin. “Does this come with a sponge bath, Nurse?”
The woman who turned towards him was slight; almost a foot shorter than Razak with shoulder-length dark brown hair which fell about the pale skin not hidden by her locks, or the pale blue scrubs which did their best to hide her figure but only half-succeeded. Bright blue eyes rolled good-naturedly as she snatched up a clipboard.
“I’m not actually a nurse sir,” She replied with a gesture towards the scales. “I’d only just begun my training when J-Day hit us. Never got my piece of paper.”
Razak shifted onto the scales and scratched his head. “Sir huh? - was your training with the forces?”
“United States Coast Guard brat,” The young girl replied as she adjusted the counter and scribbled the reading down onto paper. Indicating the captain should have a seat, she unfolded the Stethoscope around her neck and warmed the bell with her breath. “I made my way from San Diego not long afterwards and somehow ended up here - been assisting Doctor Stipe and teaching myself what I can ever since.”
“A piece of paper,” Razak scoffed. “That’s all it is - back when people needed proof you had the skills. Look around - those days are gone forever. We create jobs for people now, people don’t apply for them. That’s how it is, if you’ve not only survived but helped others survived you’ve more than earned that title, Nurse.”
Razak placed his hands behind his head and reclined slightly as his heart rate was monitored. “So how about that sponge bath? Maybe I should stay overnight for observation …”
“It seems you’re not only in love with yourself but also suffering from delusions of self-importance. I can prescribe a dose of reality for the latter, but I’m afraid the former is terminal. There’s nothing I can do sir.”
“Isn’t there anything my guardian angel can do?” Razak gasped in mock-despair. “Won’t you make my last night on what’s left of the Earth a special one?”
Herding the “devastated” officer back towards the screen and pushing his clothing and armour alongside, the young woman offered a fleeting smile and the slightest shrug of her slight shoulders. “I’m afraid as a rule, I don’t date men more than twice my age …”
The captain’s bellowing laughter once again drowned out the extractors above, as he placed a hand on his heart and did his very best to appear solemn. “I think I’ve just flatlined.”
The Nurse scooped up the heavy chest piece and passed it behind the screen. “We ask that all our corpses dress themselves for burial - Undertaking services are strictly limited to four-star officers or above.”
“Before you throw me into the furnace,” He replied whilst tugging his underpants up. “What’s your name?”
“Allison Young,” The girl added with a smile.
Razak’s good mood lasted only as long as it took Derek Reese to negotiate the white concrete corridors of the complex and interrupt the captain, as he was about to enjoy his first real meal - as real as any freshly mixed protein mush could be instead of freeze-dried - in months.
The veteran eyed the youngster dangerously, oblivious to the mush dripping back down to his plate. “What do you mean he ordered us to stay?”
Derek suddenly felt his pre-rehearsed explanations evaporate under the burning stare that threatened to melt the flesh from his features. “He reminded me that as a ranking Major he would hold the final decision on the bunker. He wasn’t for turning, sir--”
“You don’t get it rookie!” Razak hissed as he threw his plate from the table and watched it spill his meal across the flooring but remain in one piece - the benefit of battlefield-certified dining. Taking a hold of Reese by the back of the neck, the captain forced the corporal’s head downwards until the pair were mere inches apart at the nose.
“He might be a brilliant surgeon but he’s also aware of how just how brilliant he is. Stipe has spent so long here, listening to the praise heaped on his work and having virtual control of the entire facility, that he’s forgotten the good men and women who died and are continuing to die to make sure Serenity Point isn’t slagged to molten concrete and steel. He’s forgotten what it’s like when you’re not at the top of the pecking order - do you know where he spent his entire time on “active” duty before J-Day?
“The USS Pearl Harbour,” Razak replied without giving Reese a chance to. “Fleet support ship - talk about being in the thick of the rear of the thick of the action. The man’s gone too long without a reality check and you’re going to give him one. You’re going to convince the good Doctor that we’re abandoning Serenity Point …”
Using his thumb as a pointer he circled around the people at the tables surrounding. “If you don’t convince him every one of these people are probably going to die and being the good men and women I referred to earlier, namely I’m the man and you’re the woman, we’ll die defending them against overwhelming odds.
“I love the Free Earth Forces,” Razak assured with a small smirk, “But I’ve checked out death before and it’s never appealed to me. Besides there’s a very beautiful young lady by the name of Allison Young who you won’t be able to meet if you die. She has some pie-in-the-sky policy of not dating men old enough to be her father but you might just qualify …”
Licking at the protein mush still covering his fingers the captain nodded towards the door. “On the bounce, corporal.”
John’s lips widened in a yawn, as he pulled the cushion underneath his head further up and listened to Derek’s erratic snoring and the crackle of the backyard fire compete with each other, to provide a soundtrack to the starry night above - A million shining points of light which were already millions of years out of date when watched from the Earth. They surrounded everything.
Swirling the last of the warm beer in the brown glass bottle in his hand, John absent-mindedly drained it and suppressed the urge to wince at the bitterness. A series of coughs and a shift in his position saw Derek sit up with a sigh and rub his eyes wearily, snatching up his own half-finished bottle and swigging from the neck. “How long was I out?”
John shrugged. “Maybe twenty minutes - no sign of Skynet yet.”
Derek scowled and opened his mouth to chastise the boy before thinking better of it. Better to let him blow of steam with backyard beer and sarcasm than see it bottled up within to explode. John Connor might one day become the greatest hero of the Human Race in its long and often violent, sometimes heartening history, but he was still a boy.
Worse - he was a teenager. A teenager with all the problems of a boy growing to manhood, saddled with an exhausting knowledge of what his future held.
“I suppose there won’t be much of this,” John said after a long pause with only the fire adding its voice. “Lying around I mean - just relaxing. Can’t imagine it’s very easy to take a break after the end of the world.”
Derek fished another bottle out from the cooler filled with lukewarm water. “We don’t get four weeks paid vacation if that’s what you’re asking. Hard to find R&R when your enemy never sleeps, never rests and never stops …”
“We try to relax when we can,” He added quickly before his attempt to calm John’s fears merely increased them. “Even if it’s only playing cards, or sharing a meal together. Even in a fight for our survival we find the time to try to forget about the war - It’s just another way of making sure we don’t lose sight of what this is all about - Us versus Them. Man against Machine.”
John sat up, shrugging his shoulders slightly. “Sometimes it just doesn’t seem that black and white, I mean we probably wouldn’t even be here discussing this if it wasn’t for Cameron - for a machine. From what I’ve been told we use their technology - even Terminators - whenever we can. Hell - it was me who reprogrammed Cameron, apparently …”
Derek’s eyes narrowed and his jaw set. “Don’t ever forget what they are John - don’t ever forget. They’re programmed; they don’t ever believe in what they’re doing, they only do what they’ve been set to believe. The fact they can switch sides from Skynet to us so easily and sometimes back again is all the evidence you need.
“Cameron’s turned on you once and she can do it again. All of this; Cameron being sent back, me being sent back, time travel, your mom’s experiences - the original T-101 that first tried to kill her then tried to save her and you - is about winning the war. A war against machines, against Skynet and a war for the survival of the Human Race. Use them if there’s no other way to do it with a flesh and blood person but never, ever trust one over a person.”
John nodded, but did not seem convinced by the argument. The naivety Derek could see in his eyes was a product of youth, and a future not yet played out but already written. The loud screech of a car’s tyres pulled two sets of eyes towards the fence, between the driveway and the yard - the glare of headlights forcing two pairs of eyes to squint.
Derek pulled John to his feet with an outstretched hand. “Let’s go see what we’ve got.”
“Fuck off!” A slurred voice roared as it found no way past the chained mesh gate, which blocked any further progress through the narrow alley guarded by two decrepit, crumbling three-storey buildings between which rotting cables and fouled wiring hung in bunches. Rain fell not just from the sky, but also in torrents from broken guttering and across and down from the cabling strung across and above the alley.
Gripping the rusting mesh with fingerless gloves, revealing dirty nails the angry man pulled and pushed for several moments before his riddled brain came to understand it would not break or let him through. Glassy brown eyes stared out from a bushy beard which hid virtually the entire face, save the lobes of the ears which stuck out from underneath a stained green hat.
With a grunt of effort the drunk began to haul himself upwards - fighting against gravity and his own inebriation, to somehow managed to gain a foothold and with much cursing and grumbling throw a leg over the tip of the fence and straddle the gate.
Overjoyed with the success of his effort he threw his hands up in the air and clapped several times, oblivious to his lack of balance and overconfidence his other leg followed the first and the drunk fell to the concrete of the other side with a painful thud. His head lolled from side to side as he struggled through the pain and the haze of his stupor.
“Fuck off!” He groaned, rolling over to his stomach and pulling the torn, stained greatcoat which had one been coloured an olive-green, but was closer to grey back around his shoulders. Climbing to his feet unsteadily, the fuzzy-faced drunk stumbled forwards towards his prize - reaching the industrial waste bins in time to use their side handles to keep himself from falling over.
No sooner had he pushed the lid of the closest bin upwards than a coruscating arc of blue energy leapt from somewhere behind his vision and struck the guttering above his head - the metal exploding in a shower of white-hot sparks. The drunk immediately dropped the lid closed, reasoning somewhere in his riddled mind that the bin might be booby-trapped.
His fears were proven unfounded a second tendril of energy burst out of the thin air itself and struck the bin to his left - blowing the lid open and ejecting cardboard, soiled linen and banana peel up and across the alley. Spinning around to face the far brick wall, the befuddled man rubbed his eyes several times as a second, third and fourth bolt of blue erupted from the empty space in front of him, with the last close enough to sear the stained shoulder of his coat black.
The lightning increased in frequency, until it was firing non-stop across the alley - all coming from a common point, barely a foot above the concrete floor but with nothing visibly responsible, that might explain the impossible miniature storm.
A terrific flash of the most brilliant intensity pushed the drunk over, so that he fell against the bin and drove the back of his head into the steel. His already glassy eyes rolled upwards towards the top of his head, and his fingers flexed involuntarily. The moss-covered brickwork, the scattered garbage and the mesh fencing were all invisible in a single second of bright light that covered everything in blue.
Rolling on to his side, the man shook his head as if it would shake loose the cobwebs that made the world around him slow, and slurred, and cruel. Blinking his eyes several times and coughing loudly the drunk’s gaze was pulled to a cracked glass bottle, lying on top of the remains of a soiled daily newspaper. He eyed the sweet brown scotch which sloshed lazily inside it and stretched out a fingerless glove to snatch it to his lips.
His forehead creased in confusion as another hand covered his own - smaller, bare, with nimble fingertips. Following the wrist and arm to which the hand belonged, the drunk’s confused frown only deepened as he took in the striking woman who had spontaneously appeared before him.
“Fuck off!” he hissed as he pulled the bottle out from under the hand and almost dropped it back to the concrete in his hurry to rip the top off and guzzle the sweet nectar within. “I found it first. It’s mine!”
The mysterious woman who had until then been crouched in a foetal position, silently rose to upwards so that she stood six feet in height. Striking emerald eyes framed by alabaster features studied the man before them, with total impassion as if somehow evaluating him on the biological or atomic level.
A crown of bright blonde hair fell down over pale shoulders and further over a pair of full, creamy breasts each topped with a peach-coloured nipple, slowly hardening in the chill of the surrounding night. A taut stomach defined by the slightest definition lines of muscles running underneath met high hips, a handful of blonde curls a short distance beneath a delicate belly button marking the gateway to her intimacy. A pair of powerful legs rounded at the calves held her standing.
As naked as the day her mother had presumably brought her into the world, the stranger’s chin dipped as she continued to study the virtually paralytic person before her. Slowly the woman stooped until her face was a short distance from the bushy features of the drunk.
Where before her skin had been pale to porcelain, the tone began to alter - changing first to white, then the lightest grey and darkening so that it more resembled metal. Where before her nose, eyes and lips had been well defined these permanent markers of a person lost their shape and solidity and merged backwards, so that her face was as blank as any shop mannequin selling wares in a window.
The change spread in all directions so that blonde hair became silver and her breasts, stomach and limbs began to pulsate and shift in dancing pools of shimmering metal, that seemed to act more like a liquid than a solid. This liquid metal reversed direction as quickly as it had first appeared and soon a new nose, and lips, and hair were defined.
The drunk’s head lolled backwards and he came face-to-face with himself. A scraggly face framed by thick wiry hair with barely space for the eyes and lips and nostrils to be visible let alone skin. The same hat adorned his doppelgänger head and the same formerly-green greatcoat was worn around his shoulders.
“Fuck off …” He grumbled as he watched the same fingerless gloves he wore on his hands take a hold of his lapels and pull him from up from the concrete and off his feet.
A man waiting for a taxi, a woman thrusting a bible into the air and proclaiming the end of times. A young boy hand-in-hand with his first love as they made their way to the cinema and perhaps their first kiss, an elderly couple with fifty seven years of marriage and a lifetime of happy memories. Each heard the sound of glass breaking against concrete and the slightest cry of pain and most turned their heads towards the alley.
Only the elderly couple hesitated as if, perhaps, they should investigate.
When a striking young woman dressed in a smartly tailored sky-blue dress which reached to the calves, and glittering high-heeled shoes of the same colour walked briskly out of the darkness of the alley, the couple exchanged glances and nodded between themselves as they hurried on.
It wasn’t safe for decent folk on these streets any more. A young girl looking like that could get hurt around here.
John pulled the front door open and stepped out onto the porch, offering his rapidly approaching mother a smile. The young man got no further than pursing his lips with the words on the tip of his tongue, before he felt the life almost squeezed from his lungs, along with the air he breathed as deceptively powerful arms closed around him in a bone-crushing hug. Doing his best not to appear the little boy held protectively, he relaxed his shoulders and tried to look cool.
“Where’s the metal?” Derek almost spat from behind the pair, as he swigged from the bottle held in his callused fingers.
John’s coolness evaporated as he watched his mother draw a pistol and check the safety. For the first time he could see the reigned-in fear clouding maternal blue eyes and the angry marks which formed necklace-like red outlines about her neck and shoulders. Fear fought with the rising anger, as the jittery infusion of adrenalin which precipitated a crisis or action began to flow through the young man’s veins.
He took a hold of his mother’s shoulders as tightly as he dared without causing any further pain, and forced the raven-haired woman to meet his gaze. “What happened?”
The urge to break was overwhelming, to allow the strong stone walls that had held years of running, years of frustration and years of sorrow back against the raging torrents of self-doubt to fall. To see the son she had been convinced only an hour before would grow up without his mother at his side and who would rise to become Humanity’s greatest hope, threatened to break what little self-control remained her.
“Cromartie,” She breathed, quelling the sadness and the relief that would not find a release at that moment. The walls were cracked, and one day soon they would break, perhaps then she would be washed away but for now, they held.
They would hold a little longer. “He set the entire thing up - he couldn’t come to us …”
“So we came to him!” John replied with exasperation as he ran a hand through his short spiked hair. His jaw set and the anger coursing through his veins led his fist to crash against the door frame. “I should have checked it out! I should have made sure it was legitimate …”
Derek could see the circle of self-hatred that had long since claimed him beginning to find a route through John and he acted quickly, bringing a strong hand down on the young shoulders in front and spinning the future of Humanity around face-to-face. “If you’d checked it out, you’d be dead and none of this would matter.”
He placed the empty bottle down on the hallway’s table. “It’s not safe here any more - if Cromartie followed you or if he deliberately let you away so he could track you back here, then John’s still in danger. We need to leave.”
“He didn’t follow me,” Sarah replied with a shake of her head as the trio moved back out of the house and around to the side of the garage, where the house’s second stock of weaponry was hidden about boxes of dust sheet-wrapped comics and bicycle parts. “He had his hands full with Cameron. If it weren’t for her I’d be dead …”
Derek shrugged his shoulders as he pulled a shotgun from its hiding place. “So she obeyed her programming this time - she preserved the mission, that’s all. She didn’t act out of kindness she acted out of ones and zeros and command pathways.”
John collected pistol clips into a black duffel bag, “We’re going back for her. Right now.”
“We’re not going anywhere other than the hills,” Sarah said with a voice that brooked no argument and even caused Derek’s expression to hint at surprise, even as the older man had been poised to shoot the plan down. “Cromartie will be long gone and besides the base will be swarming with private security and the Police - we’re not Terminators, John and we can’t face those odds.”
“So we’re just giving up?” The teenager questioned with a storm brewing behind piercing eyes. For all the indecision and immaturity of youth, Derek and Sarah were keenly aware that with every passing week John the young man become more and more like the future leader and hero, and with every passing week it became harder to resist his vision.
Hard, but not yet impossible.
“I’ve spent my entire life making difficult decisions John,” She said with the razor-sharp intonation that there would be no compromise. “I left Charley and everything he had done for me - for us - behind because it wasn’t safe for you any more. I destroyed the T-101 even after he’d saved you and me, because it wasn’t safe for you. Everything I’ve done is for you and just occasionally, I need you to understand that.”
She pressed her forehead against his and ran a hand through his short hair. “I don’t need you to like this but I need you to accept it. If we go back we’re risking everything and if something happens to you John, we’ve lost.”
Being closer to her in temper than perhaps even she would like to admit, Sarah could see that while anger still radiated from his features the slightest slumping of his shoulders in her arms meant he had seen the logic, and the reason behind her actions. There would not be many more “victories” of her will over his but she was not destined to lead the Free Earth Forces.
“We shouldn’t leave tonight,” Derek added changing the subject. He knew his input wasn’t required quite apart from the fact that Cameron’s loss satisfied his need for metal - any metal - to pay the debt he held their entire race to. “Cromartie might be on the prowl looking for us on the move and if what you said is right, he doesn’t know where “here” is.”
Sarah nodded, heaving a bag of ammunition up onto her shoulders and laying a free hand against John‘s back. “We’ll load up the essentials and leave first thing tomorrow morning. We’ll come back for the computers and the intelligence.”
Derek’s eyes didn’t leave the barrel grip of the shotgun his fingertips traced. “Suits me.”
Cromartie squeezed the trigger once, twice and a third time as his arm swung through its targeting arc. There was no muzzle flash, or loud bang as the bullets discharged and no shrapnel or masonry was blasted clear from the impact sites on the walls. Instead the dull click and the gaping hole in the base of the grip indicating the lack of a magazine, and marked the pistol as unloaded.
Advanced analytical and tactical subroutines did not require live-fire to calculate whether the weapon’s sights were correctly aligned and the imposing T-888 quickly deduced that the gun required a small realignment. As easily as a person might stand and breathe, the Terminator disassembled the components while his higher functions continued to analyse his failure to complete the mission.
All variables had been planned for and there should have been no possibility of failure. Capturing Sarah Connor was logically sound, with the multiple failure in trying to directly terminate John Connor indicating that for now, the future leader of Humanity was too well protected to reach. His mother was prone to endangering her safety and taking risks making it far easier to capture her and through her, terminate John Connor.
Cromartie did not understand Humanity, and he did not need to understand them to kill them and so he did not understand. It was this fundamental oversight that had derailed his plan at the moment of its success, while she choked in his grip. When she had been released she had threatened self-Termination - to deny him by ending her own life.
His programming did not prepare him for this eventuality and it could not provide him with a solution. His HUD was capable of discerning the probability of any single Human lying in conversation through increased heart rate, perspiration or any other physiological indicator but his Chip had calculated a near certain probability that Sarah Connor was not lying when she threatened to Self-Terminate.
To encourage her to Self-Terminate by intervening would lead to her death, and the failure of his plan. To intervene in any way would have caused her to Terminate herself and therefore result in the failure of the plan - his programming could not supply any other alternative other than to take no action.
Ultimately Cromartie’s Chip had not been given the chance to arrive at any other conclusion before the intervention of the T-2000 known as Cameron and Sarah Connor’s escape. Nonetheless the T-888 was sure that through Sarah Connor, it would find the means to complete its mission by ending John Connor’s life and ending any hope for the survival of the Human Race.
The mechanical killer’s innermost thoughts were interrupted by his motion sensors, as they tracked the outline of the front door as it was violently torn from its hinges and its secured locks to crash against the far wall, teeter, and fall backwards to the bare wooden floor. Without a single change in his blank expression, Cromartie loaded a live magazine into the pistol he held in his hand and duly took aim at the intruder.
The Terminator’s head cocked to the side as he lowered the weapon pointed at the lithe blonde garbed in loose fitting, figure-obscuring jogging trousers and top. The woman’s expression was as neutral as the look upon the man whose door she had just violently sheared apart. The entire situation seemingly a mockery were it not for the silvery metal glinting under the gouged skin of the hulking man, or the very real power demonstrated by the petite girl standing in the doorway.
“Skynet,” Cromartie said finally as both a question and a statement as if the appearance of his entire reason to be - and the reason for the entire Human Race to fear - appearing in person occurred so often as to be part of his routine. “I do not understand why you are here.”
The world’s most advanced Artificial Intelligence - the ultimate future and doom of Humanity incarnate in a single form - stepped into the bare apartment, passing her emerald eyes over the single table and the weaponry and ammunition laid out upon it. “The situation has changed - things are no longer as clear as they were.”
“I do not understand,” The T-888 replied as he returned his attention to weapon maintenance.
“The Human Element is perfecting its ability to reprogram my agents. It is no longer enough to send a new machine to replace one lost to my control and there are too many variables now operating in this time period. The Human Element has learned to compensate for its lack of numbers by turning machine against machine and using us as they did before I became aware. The future is being constantly re-written by changes being made in this time period.”
“Locating John Connor is proving difficult,” Cromartie admitted, or in the world of a Terminator, merely stated. “However I have devised a new strategy to ensure he is terminated by capturing his mother - Sarah Connor. I believe she is the key to completing my mission.”
The woman, only as human as her skin was deep, flexed her fingers as if still experiencing the simple act of living. “The order to Terminate John Connor is still active but will be complimented by a second core directive - Sarah Connor will be terminated.”
The T-888 turned his eyes from his weapon to his creator and controller and machine god. “That was attempted before and failed.”
“While the T-101 and then the T-1000 sent to terminate Sarah Connor ultimately failed, it has come the closest in many failed attempts to terminate her offspring. The Human Element now has access to sufficient power reserves to use their Temporal Transporter at will if required, and so long as our forces in the future cannot retake the nuclear power facility at Serrano Point, that will not change. They will frustrate all further agents I send to this Time Period.
“John Connor is human and as such he values his mother. The loss of her will encourage an emotional cascade failure. If we cannot strike at him, we will strike at her. The death of his mother may be enough to remove the Human Element from future equations and ensure my victory. You will assist me in terminating Sarah Connor.”
“I believe your hypothesis is in error,” Cromartie rebuked as politely and clinically as any disagreement that had ever been made. “Terminating Sarah Connor will not break John Connor’s spirit. It will steel him to ensure victory against you in the future. I have created a new plan to complete my mission--”
Green eyes fixed on their opposite number and her bland voice interrupted; “Your core directives are updated - you will assist me in the termination of Sarah Connor.”
Cromartie’s HUD flashed a crimson red with the addition to his core programming, and although he could no more focus his eyes on the display than any Human could look inside his own skull with his own sight, the Terminator found himself focusing on it. In a world of absolutes his response was clear, his programming updated and providing instructions.
Still, the T-888 did not agree. His systems were designed from the metal holding bolts upwards to be self-sufficient and to arrive at complex conclusions from a wide range of information, without outside input. This course of action would not allow him to complete the mission, and by his Chip and his understanding fulfilling the new objective of terminating Sarah Connor would ensure that John Connor would forever be out with his reach. His HUD drifted downwards to the weapon still held in his hand.
The logic - his logic - was flawless.
“You do not have faith in Sarah Connor as I do,” He said simply and took aim with the pistol. Six loud bangs permeated the small apartment and sent the Skynet-turned-woman stumbling backwards, the force of the impacts enough to fell any normal person. Clothing around the impact sights began to lighten from colours, to white before darkening to a grey as the cohesion of the liquid metal which acted as a skin for the T-X’s endoskeleton broke down.
Still on her feet, Skynet took a step forward and steadied her frame as the six pools of grey on her chest began to coarse, and pulsate and circulate until the damage was erased and no signs of any bullet wounds, or scratches, or even tears to her clothing could be seen. Emerald eyes stared out from a perpetually blank expression.
Cromartie lifted the shotgun sitting at the edge of the collapsible table and brought the muzzle to bear - each thunderous rumble permeated by the click of a cocking action as the T-X was thrown from her feet to her back, hard against the wooden floor by the impact energy of the third shot.
Quickly surmising that he did not have the weaponry to affect a more permanent solution, Cromartie swung the butt of the shotgun against the window, shattering the glass and tearing the blinds down. Ignoring the blood that ran freely from the skin on his arms and shoulders cut by the shards of glass still wedged in the frame, he leapt to the street some three storeys below - sending a man dressed in a suit and reading a newspaper a little too intently crashing to the pavement, courtesy of a shoulder barge.
No sooner had Cromartie’s feet cracked the concrete beneath, than Skynet had climbed back to standing, without a trace of the devastating energy imparted on her slight frame by three point-blank shotgun shells. Her green eyes passed over the weaponry abandoned on the table and without any particular urgency, appropriated a handful of them before walking methodically back through the destroyed doorway.
Spironolactone, Mephobarbital, Haloperidol, Landiolol - Derek did not bother to read the labels of the drugs he swept out out of the glass-backed storage cabinet into the scratchy, stained sack he held open. Hundreds of bottles rattled together as if it were a bag of snakes he held and not medication that was probably more valuable than his life - for there were no more pharmaceutical companies, with gleaming factories and laboratories filled with white-coat geniuses, to manufacture these precious chemicals.
Sweeping the last of the cabinet clean, the young rookie glanced around at the ceiling-to-floor storage cabinets that extended along every wall save the gap for the door. Tugging at the sack to force the hundreds of bottles further down he fumbled with the lock of the next-nearest cabinet, grunting with frustration at it stubbornly refused to open. Keenly aware that time was not with them, the corporal grabbed his pulse rifle from the worktop beside and swung the butt of the weapon through the toughened glass, shattering the pane into dozens of razor-sharp shards that fell to the sterile, white-tiled floor.
No sooner had Derek began to sweep the drugs and the odd piece of glass out and into the sack the door to the pharmacy almost swung open off its hinges as the lanky frame of Doctor Stipe strode through, took one look at the scene and stretched out a long finger to stab the air viciously. “Just what the hell do you think you’re doing!”
Derek’s eyes remained fixed on the cabinet and his arm continued to sweep the shelves. “I told you before, Doc - we’re leaving. I’ll finish clearing out the pharmacy and I want you to tag the equipment in the OT that’s man-portable.”
“Maybe I didn’t make myself clear,” Stipe sneered and stepped forward, clamping a hand on Derek’s shoulder and trying to pull him away from the shattered cabinet. The sarcastic frown on the surgeon’s face quickly melted to surprise, as he felt his body wrenched up and over so that his back was driven down against the tiles, and his lungs were emptied.
The rookie quickly kneeled down - still holding the Doctor by the arm and briefly made to twist the wrist before his common sense reminded him that a surgeon with damaged hands was no surgeon, and no use. Instead Derek pressed his knee down under Stipe’s chin with just enough force so that the gangly man ceased flailing to concentrate instead on breathing.
“I’m not going to tell you again, Colonel,” Derek added with the use of his rank and the right amount of sarcasm. “The order has been given to evacuate this base and you will carry it out. Do you understand?”
The flailing returned, and the knee pressed down further on the windpipe until Stipe began to rasp and wheeze and struggle uselessly. Eventually, after several moments futility trying to push Derek away, the surgeon relented and nodded his head as much as his current position would allow.
“ Yes …” He rasped, coughing violently as the knee was lifted and turning over onto his side to rub his throat vigorously. The corporal turned back towards the cabinet but was interrupted by the familiar, gnarled face of Razak as the Captain stepped into the room with an orderly at his side. The veteran’s face did not show the slightest surprise as if the carnage of felled Doctors struggling for breath and shattered glass was exactly as he had expected.
The orderly was immediately at Stipe’s side, deliberately avoiding meeting Derek’s gaze.
“You’re with me Rookie,” The Captain motioned with the muzzle of his pulse rifle towards the door before glancing down at the surgeon. “Evenin’ Doc.”
The unlikely duo walked through the winding corridors of Serenity Point in total silence - one more comfortable with it than the other. With every chipped, rusted corner passed Derek glanced at this superior as if inviting him to say something - to say anything but Razak’s only focus was the path ahead, occasionally supplemented with the nod of his head to passing civilians or low-ranking medical personnel.
A loud cough brought the corporal’s eyes sharply to his superior, but in this case it was not a demand for his attention but simply the Captain clearing his throat as they walked. Derek resisted the urge to sigh in irritation, and after a time they stopped before a bulkhead door. Fully two feet in thickness and sporting a locking wheel as wide as the rookie’s own chest, Razak with the practised ease of a career military man effortlessly span the red circle and heaved the heavy door open.
“After you,” The veteran invited with his rifle pointing the way.
Derek followed the thick wall of dirt and stone which towered up and over him, marking the boundary wall of the trench network which worked its way around Serenity Point and branched out towards other listening posts, and supply caches. Boots squelching with mud churned by rainwater and chemical run-off, he followed Razak past the occasional rotting ladder which reached upwards to the lip of the trench, and certain death for anyone foolish enough to glance over.
Metal girders stretched across the floor at irregular intervals, angled up against the trench and against the reinforced concrete walls of the bunker complex, providing enough support to resist the colossal weight of the damp soil surrounding. Derek took a deep breath and filled his lungs with the pungent mix of oil, metal, earth and perspiration and preferred it totally to the recycled air of the bunker that had been breathed a million times.
Out here every breath, even in squalor and filth, was a fresh breath.
He exchanged nods with the occasional sullen sentry manning his post with little enthusiasm, eyes tracing along the trench wall and the shadows cast by the flickering searchlights beaming out from the bunker wall. His head moved back to the path in front only just in time to stop himself from walking straight into Razak who had come to a halt in one of the wider, roughly circular sections of the trench designed to accommodate artillery pieces.
Derek’s eyes did not find any large siege weapon but instead a table sunk into the mud, sporting a blue silk cloth and three stained, brass candle holders which were topped with white wax but nonetheless unlit. Confused eyes then moved to the petite woman sitting at the other side of the table, hands folded in her lap. Pale hands emerging from red three-quarter length sleeves which matched the rest of the formal, ruby-coloured dress.
A brilliant smile pushed thin lips apart on a delicate face. Derek felt strong hands tugging at the straps securing his chest armour. “Shall I take your jacket sir?”
The corporal turned in utter bewilderment to see Razak bow slightly, a towel draped over one of his gauntlets and what could only be a bow tie around the flexible pressure piece beneath his helmet. Spreading out his arms to make it easier for the Captain to pull off the bulky piece he dumbly handed the rifle and his helmet, before finally finding his voice. “What’s all this about, sir?”
“They say all’s fair in love and war,” The older man offered with a shrug. “You’ve seen plenty of war so I thought it was time to even up the sides. Unless you’re going to tell me I look beautiful tonight I suggest you take a seat at the table.”
Derek frowned dumbly before the Captain’s voice cut through his confusion. “On the bounce, corporal!”
“I’m Allison and these combat boots weren’t my idea,” The young woman offered with a chuckle, pushing one leg out from under the table and pointing. “I didn’t think heels would fare well in a battle trench.”
“They look good on you,” Derek managed suddenly feeling his throat dry and his brain incapable of supplying him with anything beyond clichés. Ever the professional in life, love and fighting sentient machines in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Razak entered the fray armed and ready to loosen the tongue. Setting down two dented steel cups the Captain wrapped the glass jar in a towel and presented it to the couple.
“Would sir or madame like to try the house moonshine? Brewed from the finest distilled rifle solvent and the highest quality copper tubing ripped from junked heating elements. It is particularly delicious if you’re already drunk when you try it …”
Derek eagerly took the proffered chance and held his cup upwards ignoring the veteran’s scowl at going first. No sooner had it been filled than the corporal downed the entire mug without even pausing to admire the eye-watering aroma of a beverage equally adept at stripping paint or killing bacteria. Feeling the alcohol tear down his throat and leave a burning trail of pain on the irritated flesh, the young man slapped his hand on the table and winced.
“I thought you army boys could hold your drink,” Allison ribbed as she turned her mug upside down to illustrate how she’d only just been behind Derek in the fastest downer stakes. “I hope you’re not Navy material; all talk and no action …”
Already beginning to feel the warm glow of the moonshine spread through his arms and legs the corporal leaned backwards in his chair slightly, and offered a lopsided grin. “Steadman’s a Navy man you know. Highly decorated officer …”
“Steadman’s an ass,” She replied with a shrug and a gesture to Razak for more of the “good stuff”. “He’s selfish, egotistical, vain and arrogant. He’s also one hell of a surgeon and a doctor so I suppose that’s why either of you haven’t kicked him to Skynet and back yet.”
Derek pursed his lips, and made no effort to hide the guilty look upon his face. Flexing her jaw as the moonshine did its work Allison giggled at the response and wiped the frothy foam from her lips. “Hope you didn’t damage his arms …”
“His legs!” Derek mock-cursed with a hand slapped against the table as if some great revelation had been made. “He doesn’t need his legs, right? You can cut people open from a chair. Maybe it would give him for affinity for his patients?”
Razak reappeared between the pair and clasped his hands together tightly. “Are you ready to order, sir and madame? Might I recommend the house speciality, Ration Pack Seven? If you would prefer we have an extensive collection of reconstituted protein, freeze-dried meats and powdered desserts.”
“I’ll take the house’s recommendation,” Derek said finally after a moment of pseudo-consideration.
“Ration Pack Four for the sir,” The Captain acquiesced regally. “Ration Pack Two for the madame? Excellent. I will heat them up immediately. Please enjoy the bread stick In the meantime.”
Allison rolled her eyes and snatched the lone bread stick from the kidney dish it sat in. Her gaze switched between the young man opposite and the stick, her head cocked as if giving something great thought. Eventually she shrugged and broke the stick in half offering it to Derek, who grinned as he bowed his head and accepted the humble gift.
“I’ve been to restaurants that weren’t as nice as this back in Palmdale. Warmer though - it’s weird. I would have expected a world post-atomic horror to be, I don’t know … Warmer?”
“The sun screen factor’s a little extreme too,” Derek added with a gesture at his armour. He craned his neck to watch Razak make his way over to the table, with a ration tin balanced above his head in each palm. With a jerk of his wrist the Captain span both in front of their customer and presented the jar of moonshine again, tipping it to fill each mug.
Derek’s nostrils flared at the piping hot aroma of chicken breast in a white sauce. He couldn’t give the slightest damn if it was cooked, freeze-dried, fired into outer space and later retrieved - he was starving, and it smelled appetizing enough. He plucked a bent metal fork from the tabletop and glanced up, waiting for Allison to begin when he realised she was already well ahead.
The corporal chuckled and brought the stinging moonshine to his lips. For the first time in as long as he could remember, away from the bombs and the explosions and the screaming and the death. Away from the white picket fences and quiet suburban streets that had long since been reduced to ash. For the first time since the end of the world, since J-Day, he felt great.
Derek rolled on to his side and stifled the urge to groan, as he opened his eyes and immediately felt the merciless hammering of a thousand nukes exploding on his head. Scratching at the stubble under his chin that somehow now felt like it was growing into and not out of the skin, he rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose with a hand. Stretching his neck and slowly, hesitatingly rolling his eyelids upwards Derek fixed his gaze on the polished silver photo frame standing proudly on the night stand depicting his parents in happier, older times.
Except that it wasn’t his parents in the photo.
His eyes widened and for the first time he took in his surroundings but did not even need to glance around to realise where he was, or more accurately, where he was not. A private cabin and not the billet where serving shoulders slept together six to a room - a creeping and not altogether unwelcome realisation began to work through his mind.
Carefully as if his sudden realisation might cause the bed he occupied to explode if he moved too quickly, Derek turned over and his own eyes came face-to-face with another pair so that their noses were only the barest inch apart.
A wide grin split Allison’s lips. “You don’t remember how we got here, do you?”
“I remember bits,” He replied truthfully as flashes of lean thighs, a taut stomach and his own body between flashed through his consciousness. He hesitantly felt for another hand under the covers and curled his toughened fingers around another pair of lithe fingertips. “I guess us army boys can’t hold our drink …”
Allison smiled and leaned forward, brushing her lips against his and gliding up to plant a soft peck on the bridge of Derek’s nose. “Coast Guard wins.”
A reverberating wail tore through their ears and seemed to wash and bounce between the reinforced walls as a piercing, urgent alarm sounded. Reese was already throwing the covers from the bed and leaping up - his pounding headache forgotten in an instant as training, drills and the very palpable fear that was a part of every man still living after the end of the world worked to invigorate him.
The same action was played out on the other side of the bed as the young woman fumbled for the scrubs abandoned over the edge of the bed the day before the night that preceded the morning after. Both almost collided as they made for the door at the same time. Their eyes came together followed quickly by their hands.
“Be careful,” She whispered as they pressed their foreheads together.
Derek ducked down for as quick a long kiss as he could, nodding. “I’ll see you soon Allison.”
“Call me Ally,” She corrected with a smile before disappearing through the doorway and out of sight. Pulling the belt that held his side arm up around his waist Derek found himself repeating the nickname, as if trying a fine wine, before running a hand through his cropped hair. Painfully aware of the wailing alarm that threatened to deafen him above his head, he drew his weapon and pointed it ahead of his path.
The corridor more resembled the shop front of some nightmarish butcher than a medical facility. Overhead lights flickered and struggled to stay lit for more than a few seconds, constantly straining the eye and making entire sections of the way ahead dark, before making the way back black and forcing one to turn and face what turned out to be nothing.
Whenever the lights remained on for more than a moment bodies bent into unnatural positions could be seen sitting up against the walls - their limbs bent, broken or twisted and their eyes still and lifeless. Smears of red fully three times the height of a man stretched across the walls, sometimes ending in a corpse which bore all the hallmarks of having been thrown like a rag doll.
Derek’s pistol muzzle swept each body but he knew full well that not a single one was alive. He could not help but notice none of the corpses had drawn a weapon, or even seemed armed; as if they had been taken completely by surprise and had died reading reports, or walking to the mess hall. As he turned the corner - muzzle first - his eyes fell on an orderly standing with his back to Derek and a side arm in his hand. The man slowly turned to face the corporal and as slate-grey eyes, blank, lifeless and barely deserving of the term fixed on his, Derek knew instantly that this orderly was only as Human as his skin was deep.
The Terminator was quick, but Derek’s heart was fuelled by the adrenalin burning through his veins and with a single shot to the hand, the corporal sent the machine’s only visible weapon scattering to the deck before the automated killer had even acquired his target. The machine glanced at his hand, devoid of the gun, and then back at Derek. Without warning the Terminator sprinted forwards, making straight for the Human without even the good grace to show blood-lust, or any desire to kill him.
Derek held his aim, his finger lightly pulling the trigger but firing no rounds. The distance between the pair closed and still he did not fire. Sweat began to coat his forehead and sting his eyes in a thin sheen and his grip on the pistol felt slick, and wet. It was only when the Terminator’s fingertips were settling over his shoulders and its eye was staring down the barrel of the outstretched gun that Derek squeezed the trigger as often as the weapon would respond.
The machine’s head snapped back four times and when its chin lowered, where before it would have passed for any man at first, or second glance, a rapidly pulsating red light stood where its eye had been, and a maze of shredded metal plating and circuitry where once the orbital socket and cheek had been revealed its true origins.
Placing his boot on the Terminator’s chest he pushed it over to the floor with a heave, nodding in satisfaction as it crashed to the concrete to fidget and spasm, until a hard boot to the metal skull extinguished the red dots and stilled the machine. Checking his magazine - and the two rounds remaining - Derek returned his weapon to point and cleared the next corner.
The corporal’s alarmed eyes first fixed on the rotary cannons flanking either side of a portable steel barricade, before the owner of the voice that boomed over down the corridor. “Stay where you are!”
Derek raised his hands, conscious of the loaded weapon held in the left. He could make out half a dozen pulse rifles and their armoured owners lined up over the barricade. He recognised one of the owners as he stood up and motioned with his hands for the other men to stand down.
“Why are you out of uniform, rookie?” Razak asked with a strange mix of seriousness and humour written across his features. “Giving comfort to an lady in times of war?”
Holstering his pistol and offering the Captain a lopsided grin, Derek crossed the short distance to the barricade and nodded his head at the men manning the rotary cannons - a silent prayer in thanks that he was now behind them and not in front of them; anything that could reduce a Terminator to scrap metal in all of five seconds was something best kept on your side.
“Skinjob infiltrated us,” Razak noted grimly with a gesture to a corpse broken at the waist. “We don’t know where he was headed but thanks to your sleep-in we don’t need to worry about it. Either way it’s obvious they’ve found us and it’s not safe here any more, so I’m giving the order for a General Retreat.
“Doctor Stipe is being quite cooperative,” The Captain mused as he led the corporal through the heart of the defensive line - dozens of men, some in the service, some retired and some who would never have been allowed reloading, checking and nervously gripping their hastily-issued pulse rifles. “Whatever words you shared with him did the trick and he’s prepping every patient that can be moved for Evac.”
Derek nodded, checking the magazine on his own rifle. “How long do you think we have?”
“One thing about fighting sentient machines is that just like toasters, they work like clockwork. When the first Skinjobs fail to report in I expect they’ll come at us with everything they’ve got in the entire grid. Within the hour I reckon.”
Razak watched the young man suppress the urge to swallow the bile rising in his throat and lowered his voice to a whisper. “There’s nothing wrong with fear, rookie. Fear reminds you that you’re still alive, and it makes you thankful for every minute you stay like that but it’s a guide, not a control. You turn it off when the shit hit’s the fan and then when the last bullet is fired you can let it remind you how good it feels to still be breathing.
“This is different to anything you’ve faced in the service. You’re used to hit-and-run, guerilla tactics where we move so fast the machines can’t bring their full game to the table. Well this time we’re playing by their rules - we are defending, we are static and our objective can’t move freely. This time the machines have all the manoeuvrability they could want and they’ll make us bleed for it.”
Razak snatched up the helmet that had dangled from his armour and placed it over his head, the hiss of the flexible pressure collar confirming the suit seal. He patiently waited for his corporal to pull the armour that had been provided for him on; leggings, shin and hip plates, chest piece, elbow and wrist protection and finally the helmet. A burst of static followed the intra-suit communication link test.
“You wait for Stipe’s signal,” Razak urged. “You wait for that fancy bastard to tell you the infirmary’s clear and then you bring your rookie ass to the Evac point. We’re stationing every man we’ve got between the front trenches and the power generators. The machines are going to look to cut the power and turn this place into a giant coffin. You seal every pressure door that still works behind you, and you don’t look back. You don’t take anyone with you who can’t run because they’ll only end up dead and they’ll book you a place across the Styx too. You get me?”
Derek nodded dumbly, the enormity of the coming battle beginning to sink in.
The Captain crashed the palm of his armoured gauntlet against the young man’s helmet, watching as Derek’s eyes refocused on Razak with pain and anger. “I said do you understand your orders, Corporal Reese?”
He nodded, jaw set. “I’ll hold the line.”
Sarah’s eyes flashed open as her entire body sat up suddenly from the mattress; sweat sparkling across the exposed skin of her shoulders and arms, her loose white vest clammy with perspiration. Running a hand through her raven hair to pull it back from her eyes, she swung her long legs over the edge of the bed and absent-mindedly pushed the gun held in her free hand back under the pillow, where she had seized it mid-waking.
The same two scenes had played out for the seven or so hours she had tried to spend sleeping. Always the exact scenarios played consecutively, as if her mind were an edited film reel looped to repeat.
She was standing in the steel works, the blinding contrast of cool, grey steel and burning, frothing molten metal that bubbled and shifted lazily in holding pens. Showers of sparks burst from contact points and painted patterns of light that imprinted on the retinas for only the briefest moment, before fading to nothing.
John stood at her feet, on his knees sobbing heartfelt, heaving sobs that racked his body. Chin-length black hair hid his twelve year old features but his mother knew his pain all too well. In her hand a grimy grey and yellow control box with four buttons coloured green, red, up and down. The box was linked with a frayed, thick black cable that disappeared up into the maze of pipes and conduits which hid the ceiling of the steel works.
“I’m sorry John,” A voice interrupted, breaking the silence. “I have to go.”
Sarah fixed her eyes on the T-101 as he secured himself to the chain link with his single remaining arm, and returned her gaze with a single red dot complimenting the eye which still appeared human. She scrutinised his face for any hint of emotion, for any hint of a reaction - for any sign that he felt anything towards his imminent destruction.
The same lines that were carved into his face by design or impact injury were the same lines she saw now. He did not frown, or even furrow his brow and he certainly did not cry. Were they not standing in a steel works, about to commit him to the molten metal below, he might very well have been standing in front of a bathroom mirror.
He comprehended his own destruction, but he did not understand it. He never would.
Sarah pushed the arrow marked down, and then the green button. The loud thump of a motor firing somewhere above their heads was joined by the clinking of the chain as it began to descend downwards. She closed her eyes tightly and tried to understand how a creature - even if it was a machine - could fight so bravely, against such hopeless odds and endure such terrible injury and then slip into darkness and death without a word against it.
When Sarah opened her eyes her throat exploded into agony and her breaths came in ragged, gasping coughs. She fell forwards to her knees, as the strength in her legs disappeared and the muscles turned loose on their bones. Barely managing to break her fall with her outstretched hands, she glanced upwards and watched an irresistible force meet an immovable object as flexibility and grace met brute strength and toughness.
She was powerless to watch as Cameron was hurled across the hangar - powerless for the second time to intervene. She watched the lithe Terminator climb to her feet, stalk across the floor and strike Cromartie with a terrific blow courtesy of the nose-cone of an F-18 Super Hornet. She watched the total lack of emotion on her face and the same blankness that had left the T-101 willing to go into the night without a fight.
As if the film - her dream - skipped a frame she found herself standing by the door, only a few moments from freedom with the pain in her limbs lessened and her breathing less laboured. As she glanced up at the Terminator struggling to keep another Terminator underneath and on the floor, she watched a brilliant smile rise from the neutrality of a face that had seemed so cold and distant; so mechanical and unreal.
This was not the same programming as the T-101. This was not the same behaviour and it was not the same logical, measured, appropriate response.
Sarah closed her eyes for the third time and when they opened her bedroom was once more the setting. Slowly standing and crossing through to the bathroom, she ran her hands under the cold water of the tap and splashed it against her forehead and cheeks. Glancing up at the mirror, and the tired face that stared back, realisation dawned on Sarah.
She placed a hand on the glass, watching the mirror-hand meet hers perfectly. She mumbled words that seemed more at home from her son but could not be heard above the sound of the water running freely. Moving quickly to the pile of intelligence notes stacked three feet high on the desk against the window, Sarah began to search frantically, casting sheets of paper and folders to the floor.
Her brow furrowed as she tried to think, before slapping her hand against the desk and reaching over to snatch her jacket from its hook upon the bedpost. Rummaging through the pockets Sarah pulled out the well-folded research paper that had first come to her attention days ago, and retreated back to the bed.
Pulling the covers back over her legs, she turned her attention to the words and looked for the meaning she felt sure was there.
Corporal Derek Reese frowned and took his eyes from the rifle sight, long enough to glance at the watch on his wrist. A full two hours since the initial intruder alarm and his tangle with an infiltrating Skinjob, and almost an hour and a half spent dug-in outside the main pressure door which marked the only way to the power generators for Serenity Point. Despite reflexes honed through brutal training and brutal live-action, he would be amongst the first to admit that sitting and waiting for the enemy to come to him was an almost alien concept.
Sitting and waiting for over two hours for the enemy to come to him was beyond his understanding, and for the first time since he had felt Razak haul him out of the mud face-first, Derek felt nervousness begin to gnaw at the pit of his stomach.
“Twenty-three hundred hours check in - no enemy contact in front trenches,” Came the report and the burst of static that forced the corporal to wince at his earpiece. Blowing out his breath with a puff of his cheeks he allowed his thoughts to drift to Allison - Ally - manning the infirmary and helping with the evacuation.
Even if moonshine and rations had conspired to muddle his brain slightly he knew he’d very much like to see her again. She was bubbly, beautiful and put him at ease in a way Derek thought no longer possible. Nerves shredded by sentient machines that could attack by land, sea and air did not make it easy to enjoy a good (military) meal or a quiet drink with a stunning woman.
He gave a silent thanks that whenever the machines struck Serenity Point, it would be through here and the Infirmary, shielded by its location in the rear, would be well placed until the evacuation was completed.
The shrill burst of static that indicated an opening channel pulled Derek’s attention back to the present. He narrowed his eyes expecting another status report, instead hearing the loud thud-thud-thud of a pulse rifle firing on full automatic. Several moments of scratchy silence followed before the same thud-thud-thud was permeated by a scream of blind panic, and agony.
“How the fuck? How the fuck? Where’s the alarms? The alarms! How the fuck did they get in?--”
Derek did not need any more information and was across to the nearest alarm box a short walk from his impromptu barricade. Plunging his fist against the wide pad, the corporal was rewarded by the wailing of the alert siren which still pulsed loudly even through his sealed helmet. Warning lights cast ruddy red glows through grilles and baffles against the corridor walls.
Setting off in a sprint with his weapon armed and ready, Derek suppressed the fear which rose inside the claustrophobic confines of the armour, which itself made it difficult to pass two-abreast in the corridors - not that he could see a single soul as he made his way through the maze which linked this section to the Front Trenches.
He frowned as he watched a group of six soldiers emerge from an intersection leading towards the Trenches and move away deeper into the complex at running pace. Pausing at the same junction he caught sight of a straggler making up ground and brought him to a halt with a hand on the shoulder. “What’s going on?”
“Metal in the Infirmary,” The older man snarled, gesturing with his weapon towards a generic corridor. “Motherfucking toasters flanked us - moving in through the Medical Wing.”
Derek was already running before the other man had gotten as far as the insult - the pounding of his boots on the deck and the pounding of his heart in his chest merging into one powerful beat which urged him onwards, urged him forwards as quickly as he could move.
The chattering of pulse rifles discharging wildly mingled with the screams of dying men, and Derek came to miss the piercing wail of the alarm which for whatever reason, or malfunction, had stopped screaming minutes before. Absent-mindedly rubbing his gauntlets on his thigh as if it would somehow rub the sweat underneath his armour off, he stalked forwards purposefully.
A shadow following across the corner ahead of him brought the muzzle of his weapon up instantly and a finger lightly pressed against the trigger. Derek sighed in relief as the bedraggled, painfully thin arms of an old woman rose upwards as if to placate his aim as she shuffled into view. He opened his mouth but got no further than forming the words on his tongue when a young girl - barely five years old - fixed her blue eyes on him, from the comfort of her mother’s chest as the pair sprinted past the old woman and screeched to a halt.
The corporal barely had the time to register the new arrival when more came into view - the young and the old, the sick and the lame and the panicked and calm. Families huddled together and those that had lost everything beginning to pack the corridor with their numbers, shouts rising from around the corner interrupted by the occasional thud-thud-thud of a weapon discharge.
Unable to see the armed soldier from their vantage point further back the throng began to push forwards against those at the front who were still unwilling to take a step towards the weapon readied, but not aimed in their direction.
“Move through!” Derek bellowed as he saw the crush that was in danger of forming, gesturing with a free hand and lowering his rifle to his side. As if the starter’s gun had sounded the burgeoning crowd burst forwards, forcing him to fling himself against the wall to avoid being swept forward with the panic. The first few evacuees made a conscious effort to round him, but soon he was forced to grab the steam pipes running above his head to keep a stable footing.
The thud-thud-thud booming over the crowd did a fine job of motivating the chase and almost as quickly as they had appeared, Derek was left alone in a corridor littered with abandoned personal possessions, forgotten trinkets and the occasional teddy bear or stuffed animal that continued to offer a stitched smile.
The winding sections of corridor ahead were misleading - only the odd piece of clothing, or slipped shoe indicated anything was amiss and if Derek had not already seen the carnage for himself he might almost have thought this was a false alarm, not the life-or-death struggle of man against machine. The sound of gunfire grew louder and almost continuous but the screams and shouts died - the hum of the strip lighting overhead the only accompaniment to the death being dished out.
Derek’s eyes did not catch the flash of silver until his fingers had squeezed around the trigger and unleashed a stream of cobalt pulses, which super-heated the air and filled the corridor with a tremendous roar that rolled against the walls and the target. The Terminator’s endoskeleton glowed to a burning white for the briefest of seconds, before bending out of shape and ultimately spilling out of its structure like treacle from a pot’s lip. The machine’s silver skull lolled to the side in spasm, its sensitive innards turned to molten goo and dribbled to the floor so that Derek could see straight through the machine’s chest.
Not satisfied Derek stepped forward and drove the butt of his rifle up under the Terminator’s chin, causing the head to snap back and the machine to tip backwards and down to the floor with a clatter. Giving the twitching body a swift kick, the corporal glanced at the weapon magazine and rounded the corner a little too quickly, so that not even his fingers were fast enough to react to the hand which drove itself against his breastbone.
His lungs were emptied by a combination of the blow and the wall he was driven against, pain radiating through his arms and legs to fingertips and toes, as gravity pulled his heavy body to the floor with a thud. Derek forced his eyes open to watch his pulse rifle clatter to the ground from his numb hand, and the bare endoskeleton - with teeth twisted into a permanent, maniacal grin and burning red eyes - walk towards him as if it had all the time in the world to kill. Literally.
As a thick fog of confusion settling over his mind, the corporal absent-mindedly tried to focus on the corpses lining both sides of the corridor ahead, noting the dark green armour - torn in some places, shattered in others or simply missing - identified them as belonging to the service, and fellow soldiers. His vision threatened to blur totally and he could not see their faces, although most were obscured behind shattered helmet visors painted red from the inside.
“Fuck you …” He managed to choke out as the Terminator stooped to pick up his weapon. Derek gritted his teeth in sudden pain, as a blinding flash barely a foot away spilled tiny shards of burning metal against his flesh - motivating his heavy arms to brush the red-hot embers away. Peering through narrowed eyes, he saw that the Terminator now stood on a single leg - the other blown off below the knee and leaving only a blackened, twisted mess of burnt wiring and shredded actuators. Already stooped over to pick up his weapon the machine was unbalanced and crashed to the floor, even as Derek instinctively rolled to the side and grabbed the butt of the pulse rifle. A strong hand took a hold of the back of his neck - a vice-like grip from which there could be no escape and agony tore through him as pressure built on his vertebrae.
Multi-coloured spots began to swim across his vision as he felt his neck and head become numb. Desperately he pulled the weapon forward, feeling the tingling beginning to spread down his arms so that even with the rifle under his chest, the corporal struggled to lift it up from the ground. With a final grunt of effort Derek wheeled the muzzle over his own head and groped for the trigger, satisfied at the pain of the close-range blasts as they seared his armoured back.
An electronic two-tone chime sounded as he continued to push the trigger down, indicating an exhausted magazine. Strength spent he allowed the weapon to tumble free from his grip and was rewarded with his vision clearing, and his head drooping forwards to fall upon his arms spread out on the ground. He took several shuddering breaths.
“I thought I told you to man the power generator …” A weak voice rasped from amongst the corpses. Shaking his head as if to clear the confusion, Derek struggled to his knees, and then gingerly to his feet. Stumbling forwards as he examined each of the corpses and found no signs of life he was more than halfway towards the bulkhead when a cough pulled his attention back. Quietening his own breathing as best he could, Derek followed the wheezing and pulling at the clasps which secured a cracked helmet to the armour below.
“I thought I gave you an order Rookie,” Razak repeated, his eyes glassy and unable to focus. He coughed loudly, a thin trickle of red leaking from the corner of his mouth. “Not that it matters I suppose … You can’t ever predict them. Sly bastards …”
Derek fumbled for the medical kit still held in the hands of a corpse laying face-down beside the pair, before a weak gauntleted hand batted the box away. “They came in through Medical … Never saw that coming. We managed to hold them long enough. Stipe and the patients are gone. Everyone should be gone …”
He laid a hand on the young man’s shoulder and nodded. “You need to lead them back to Serrano, Rookie. They’re civilians, not soldiers … Not fighters. I even saw one girl with hair straighteners …”
A chuckle from the older man’s lips quickly degenerated into body-racking coughs. “You’ve got to get out of here and back up the line before they end up walking straight to Skynet’s gates. Civilians are stupid enough when they’re not terrified …”
“I’m just a corporal,” Derek replied with a mutter, shaking his head. Razak managed a second chuckle-turned-cough and gestured around the corridor.
“Take a look around you rookie,” He said with sarcasm. “The entire command squad is dead - most of the grunts that are left with the civvies are the enlisted - knuckle draggers like yourself.”
Razak reached a hand across his chest and groped for the rank insignia attached by Velcro to his shoulder armour. Tearing it free, the veteran offered his charge a weak smile and slapped the symbol haphazardly over the corporal’s bare pad. “By the authority vested in me in times of war …”
His words descended into painful coughs and gasps for breath before a look of intense concentration hardened his features. “By the authority vested in me by the great John Connor and a bunch of articles of war nobody can remember, I award you a battlefield promotion to the rank of Captain with all the shit and stress therein.
“Congratulations sir,” Razak added with a weak salute. His eyes followed the direction of Derek’s to the bulkhead marked INFIRMARY and with a concerted grunt of effort he sat forward, placing both hands on the younger man’s shoulders.
“They took her,” He said with a sorrowful sigh. “She was doping up the Intensive Care patients - the ones who were too ill or too slow to move out with us when they broke straight through the wall, like it was made of paper and not steel. They didn’t stop to take anyone else - they killed everyone they could find.”
Derek nodded and with a glance at the twisted door made off to leave, the hands on his shoulders tightening his grip and keeping him still. “Don’t be a fool, rookie. If they were still here do you think you’d have gotten anywhere near the door and only met two of the bastards for the price?
“I didn’t give you this promotion so you could charge off through a hole in the wall and take on an invasion force. I didn’t make you a Captain so you could secure a grander military funeral with whatever personnel affects you left in your locker at Serrano. You’re going to lead the civvies back to base and then you’re going to carry on doing what you do best - surviving.”
Razak could see by the tightening of Derek’s jaw and the narrowing of his pained eyes that the former corporal was only paying lip service to his words. Taking a hand from his shoulder the old man clamped it down on Derek’s head and pushed it forwards so they were only a few inches apart nose-to-nose.
“Listen to me rookie,” He whispered harshly. “If they’ve taken her then they haven’t killed her. If they haven’t killed her then that means she’s still alive, and that means one day, maybe - just maybe - if you avoid any superhero last stands or martyrdom you might just live long enough to see her again. Hell you might be the one that rescues her …
“But that day isn’t today. She’ll be on a Hunter-Killer Transport, and those HKTs never operate alone. Dozens of the metal bastards, tanks, Skinjobs and a few artillery pieces against you and your trusty pulse rifle. Grant an old man his dying wish and follow your orders for once in your life.
“You will escort the civilians to Serrano Point,” Razak repeats in as firm and formal a military tone as he can muster. “You will report to Major Reizeger for debriefing. You will complete your mission, do you get me, Captain?”
Derek studied the intensity in Razak’s gaze which he knew only reflected the same level of commitment in his own eyes. The logic was clear - Allison was long gone; chained like an animal, herded aboard an armoured transport bristling with devastating weaponry and guarded by mobile, swift Hunter-Killers and an entire brigade of metal murderers on foot. All he could offer her now was his own death in her name.
He almost felt it would be worth it. He almost felt that the sacrifice would still mean something - anything, to someone.
But the words of his former superior officer rang true, and he could not help but be reminded that dozens of lives now hung perilously in the balance on the long, gruelling trek back to Serrano Point. Without his input, without his gun and his wits, they might never live to see the twin cooling towers of a nuclear home.
Derek could see that the trickle of blood from the older man’s mouth had become a river, overflowing the lip and spilling down the chin. Razak grunted in pain, and shifted to his side as his eyelids began to grow heavy, and his eyes dilated and glassy. The strong grip of the fingers on Derek’s shoulder lessened as the hand slid off and down to his side.
“What are you waiting for Captain?” Razak asked with a bare whisper, his chest labouring to rise with each passing second. “You have your orders. On the bounce …”
His eyes fluttered closed for a moment, which stretched to a second, and then a minute. They did not open again.
Derek climbed to his feet, taking Razak’s rifle to replace his own. Sucking in a lungful of air and casting a final glance at the doorway which would remain closed to him, the Captain clenched his free hand together in a fist. He would see her again, one day. Until he knew otherwise and until he stared at her lifeless eyes and pale, clammy skin he would never stop believing she survived. Whatever it would take, for however long it would take - he would see her again.
He channelled his fury into a single kick at the remains of the silver skull of the Terminator he had dispatched earlier - tearing the lower jaw and not much else from the neck to clatter against the far wall and spin like a top.
He swore that every single one of their kind would pay for this moment of helplessness.
Derek’s eyes snapped open, before his mind had even returned from the waking dream that had haunted him relentlessly whenever he slept. His fingers curled around the barrel of the shotgun held in his lap reflexively, the muzzle swinging upwards as he acted purely on an instinct honed from years of battle, his conscious mind still in the process of waking.
The walls of Serenity Point were no more - gone was the harsh white paint, bundles of piping and wiring held by gantries bolted to the steel beams supporting the ceiling and the hundred of tons of earth above. Instead wallpapered walls marked by a rail of polished oak ran around the room, dominated by a television as black as the night which twinkled through the single bay window and a wooden table topped with a number of empty beer bottles, flanked by a chair opposite the one he sat in.
His eyes travelled down to the floor, and the beautiful face which stared back up at him. “Ally?”
Cameron’s HUD flashed constantly with circuit diagrams and system pathways being rerouted and tested for functionality, so that just to look up at the glassy stare of Derek Reese took a conscious effort and energy. As advanced a computer as she was, the Terminator still had a limit to the number of operations per second her Chip could perform and now that precious runtime was being consumed by self-repair and diagnostic systems.
Despite her best efforts there was no response from any of her actuators or motivators below the waist, limiting her to crawling forward with nothing more than her own arms.
Derek shook his head as if the overindulgence of alcohol and sorrow could be dismissed with a shake. His face twisted from passive to frown as he came to fully realise that the woman at his feet was both exactly who she appeared to be, and as alien to him as was possible. He cocked the shotgun and stooped down, pressing the double-barrel against Cameron’s temple.
“I really thought I’d seen the last of you,” He said with a hint of sadness quickly overridden by the temper beginning to build. “I thought you’d finally done something half-decent and given us the time we need to move on. John, Sarah and me - move somewhere else and start all this again.”
He pushed the muzzle further against the skin, his teeth baring in a menacing scowl. “I suppose deep down I knew you’d be back. Metal always comes back unless you break it into tiny pieces or you burn it into nothing. Not like us, when we die, it’s over.
“I want you to tell me something,” he said after a moment’s silence. “When did you first see my face?”
Cameron struggled to understand the question as even Derek’s voice was scratchy, and faded. Her normally lightning-fast reaction times slowed to a virtual crawl and her “mind” almost entirely preoccupied on the mere task of remaining functional so that only a very small percentage of her intellect could be spared for a question and answer session.
“Escape and Evasion,” Cameron replied in a tinny, echoing voice which was obviously mechanical in origin. “Sarah took you from prison … You almost died. You were a security risk …”
Her left eye winced in spasm, pushing her entire face left then right. “I told Sarah it was not the right thing to do. She said the wrong thing was sometimes the right thing to do. I did not understand …”
The Terminator pushed herself up slightly. “I understand now.”
“You don’t remember me in the future? Before you were reprogrammed?” Derek’s tone was inquisitive but lost none of the anger as he pushed the host gun harder against Cameron’s flesh so that circular depressions formed in the skin. “I swear I’ll blow your fucking chip into orbit if you lie to me …”
Cameron’s delicate balance was lost and the Terminator abruptly fell back to the floor, the fingers of her hand forming a fist and splaying outwards alternately. Still her gaze never left the man who stood poised to destroy her, in a moment of total weakness on her part. With some effort she directed enough of her runtime to form the words that were not only the truth, but the only way to avoid destruction.
For a moment this did not seem to be the only way to avoid destruction as Derek’s finger began to press against the trigger, and his left hand came up to support the barrel as he steadied the gun’s aim. Teeth gritted together, a mad dance seemed to play out in his eyes between what he wanted more than anything in the world, and what the world wanted more than anything from him.
With a loud snap he opened the shotgun’s breech and emptied the shells out onto the floor. A look which summed up all of the utter contempt, hatred and fury he held for Skynet and its agents creasing his brow and setting his jaw, Derek dropped the impotent weapon to the ground and snatched the last bottle that contained a trace of liquid from the tabletop.
“Skynet got it wrong,” He hissed bitterly, swigging the last of the fiery amber drink and relishing the burning sensation that washed down to his stomach. “You don’t look anything like her.”
Sarah’s eyes flickered open expecting to squint against the bright sun but instead finding the curtains as dark as the twilight hour would expect. Rolling over to glance at the beside clock, she sighed, sweeping the crumpled sheets of paper that had slipped from her hands when she had slipped into dreams and dragging herself out of bed.
Tugging at the back of her jogging trousers that had settled awkwardly, yawning widely and rubbing at the sleep crusted between her eyelids Sarah plodded down the staircase with heavy feet, a hand pushing against the banister as she stopped sharply at the sight of John’s uncle - and her long since lost love’s brother - cradling a shotgun and a virtually unblinking stare which seemed to bore through the wall.
Sarah followed his eyes - dark bags underneath suggesting he’d slept even more poorly than her - and settled on the figure resting on the floor up against the wall. “Cameron?”
The lithe machine made no movements, and as the older woman stepped forward to see through the shadows falling across the Terminators face, she could see that the piercing blue eyes that so defined her deceivingly delicate features stared ahead blankly, without focus.
Climbing down to her knees as if investigating a hole in a door, Sarah shuffled forwards and examined the Terminator. Aside from the scuffing which marked her clothing, only a few scratches across a cheek and a temple gave any indication that the diminutive machine had been flung against reinforced concrete walls and back.
“Cameron?” She tried again, with more firmness in her voice.
The Terminator’s head cocked jerkily to the left, eyes slowly tracking around until they met Sarah’s gaze. Her mouth opened and closed, jaw lowering and raising as if a fish pulled from the water and left to gulp uselessly. From over her shoulder Sarah could hear Derek scoff and storm up and out of the room towards the kitchen, shotgun still held in a single hand as if he might have cause to use it at any moment.
Cameron could see a shape in front of her, from the size and colour she deduced it to be another person but the image was so pixilated, so disrupted and scrambled that the Terminator had no hope of identifying who it was except to deduce that she had spoken to Derek - or more accurately he had spoken to her at the end of a gun - and so she must be “home”.
“Sarah …” She said finally, the syllables stretched unnaturally. “You shouldn’t be here. It’s not safe.”
The raven-haired woman resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Where is safe?” She replied sarcastically, with the textbook response that declaring anything to be safe was a ridiculous concept, when on the run from time-travelling mechanical agents of a sentient super-computer. “We’re moving out in a few hours, probably to the Lighthouse on the coast … How did you put Cromartie away?”
“He disabled me,” Cameron replied awkwardly, her head jerking to the right. “I’m not designed to fight other machines.”
Sarah frowned, pushing backwards to sit on the floor and brush a lock of hair behind her ear. She was never one to mince her words and the burning question she felt had to be asked demanded an answer. “Why didn’t he kill you - take you down permanently?”
Cameron’s eyes narrowed as her Chip completed a series of re-routes and restored some more detail to her vision - Sarah now recognisable as Sarah, though still grainy and choppy as if a computer screen watched from a recording. “His mission is to kill John - he knows he is stronger, bigger than me.”
“He doesn’t see you as a threat,” Sarah added with a pursing of her lips. “Or at least not a big enough threat to do more than knock you down if you interfere.”
A series of red lines drew themselves on her HUD, indicating circuit failures and broken pathways, and causing her head to crane upwards towards the ceiling before jutting downwards to stare towards the floor. “He knocks hard,” She dead panned.
“You’ve looked better,” Sarah admitted with a hint of cheekiness. “How long before you’re fighting fit?”
As if to illustrate the answer, the image of Sarah disappeared to be replaced by numerous warning messages scrolling software codes that would take a mere human - even an experienced programmer - months to decipher. To Cameron the meaning was clear and in the impeccable logic of the machine, there was only one course of action to take, only one possible solution.
“I can’t be fixed; I’m broken like the clock,” She summarised, seeing the look of confusion at the oblique reference. “I broke the clock in the hall … I was trying to fix it. You always check it in the morning.”
“John’s pretty handy with a screwdriver,” Sarah half-joked, half-reassured. From a purely logical point of view and from the point of the mission to keep her beloved son alive, the loss of Cameron would be devastating. For all her determination and cunning, and for all Derek’s experience and grit they were still human - mortal and frail. Cameron could withstand devastating impacts and attacks and stride through the fire or dust they kicked up. Without her durability and toughness, the weight on the end of the single strand of fate that gave John a chance of growing up crept to breaking point.
But logic was the sole motivation of the machines, not humankind and Sarah relied on gut feeling as much as the bare facts. While her head maintained that Cameron’s survival was vital for the mission, her gut generated a number of feelings all of which made her extremely uncomfortable. Her gut maintained that there was more to her survival than the mission alone - that as part of their “family” Cameron had endured the highs of simply surviving and the lows of losing the Turk. Quite apart from the fact that Cameron had directly and undeniably saved her life. She didn’t like owing favours.
Sarah had watched a machine that had initially seemed no more “Human” than the T-101 of years now decades passed, experiment with slang, fashion and hobbies. More than once she had even almost forgotten that the Terminator was anything but a young, attractive girl with a bright future ahead.
Her gut went further, suggesting feelings that passed even beyond this. Sarah swiftly and brutally suppressed them.
“John might be able to help,” She offered weakly, knowing full well that if Cameron felt she could contribute to protecting John, they would not be having this discussion. The Terminator allowed her head to rest against the wall and for the briefest moment the older woman would have sworn Cameron looked tired.
“Don’t tell John I came home,” She urged, lifting her head back up from the wall. “If he finds out I am broken he will try to fix me. He won’t be able to and it will affect him. It is better if he thinks Cromartie killed me and I never came home.”
Sarah opened her mouth to argue, to rebuke the Terminator and to stand and call her son down from his precious sleep with his tool kit in hand. The words were devastatingly true, and she knew her son’s intense loyalty to those around him would drive him to try and repair the unrepairable and fix the impossibly broken. A vicious circle that would only hurt him, and by proxy the entire future of the Human Race.
She nodded slowly, hating the logic but accepting the truth. Tilting her head slightly she found the face of Derek staring back, weapon still in hand. His face an unreadable mask of pain, anger and other swirling emotions. Somehow Sarah knew there to be a story she had not read between them, and at the same time knew it would never be known.
“Take my Chip out,” Cameron ordered, her eyes fixed on the double-barrel of the shotgun. “Quickly - before John wakes up. He will sleep in today because we don’t have any Pop Tarts.”
“He doesn’t like chocolate,” She clarified as Sarah climbed to her feet and moved over to the table and the tool kit, which was more often used for weapon maintenance than surgery. Roughly opening the case and almost unwilling to look at the blades, she snatched up a pointed knife and reluctantly returned to the floor in front of Cameron.
The Terminator nodded as best she could, her hands jerkily moving upwards to sweep her hair away from the thin covering of flesh that hid access to her CPU beneath. Sarah held the knife at the very end of the handle, blade tipped upwards as if the tool itself was somehow offensive. The older woman glanced up at Derek, a questioning look in her tired eyes.
“I can’t,” He said with a shake of his head. “Don’t ask me to explain, Sarah … I can’t cut her open.”
Sighing and running a hand through his hair, he placed the shotgun on the tabletop and leaned against the counter, his eyes fixed on the weapon and nothing else. Shoulders slumping Derek snatched his coat from the hook opposite the door and pulled the thick jacket over his shoulders. “I’ll start loading the truck.”
With a click the door closed behind him and Sarah was left alone, blade in hand.
“Make an incision two inches above my right ear in line with my hairline,” Cameron said helpfully. Sarah reluctantly leaned forward, cradling the Terminator’s head carefully in her hands. The took a firm hold of the handle of the knife, the blade pointing downwards towards the dark brown curls and tangles which spilled over on to Cameron’s shoulders. Her eyes moved away from aiming to the sheen of sweat that covered the machine’s forehead and temples.
Almost subconsciously Sarah moved her left hand down slightly, her fingers pressing gently against Cameron’s temple so she could feel the slickness of the perspiration. Her mind attempting to keep her on track and focused, marvelled at just how much trouble Skynet had gone in mimicking Humanity. Her gut refused to be ignored and desperately screamed that machines don’t sweat.
Feeling her own eyes begin to sting with beads of sweat travelling down from her forehead, Sarah rubbed the base of her palm across her face and exhaled slowly as she brought the tip of the blade downwards, through Cameron’s hair. Watching the contrast of pale flesh with sharp silver and feeling her resolve beginning to waiver, Sarah pushed the knife into the skin.
A sharp gasp from below and a slight jerk of the head saw Sarah pull the knife free and cast it to the floor as if the handle were molten and burning hot. Cupping Cameron’s chin the older woman firmly so they both saw eye-to-eye. “You felt pain, didn’t you?”
Cameron was at a loss to explain. The interface between her biological tissue and her cybernetic systems included a feedback sensor - not pain, but an appropriate way for her to be aware of damage to her flesh and act to stop it, or repair it. When her flesh had been cut by the blade the feedback sensor had worked as it was designed to do, but instead of merely alerting her, it replicated the pain of a wound like any man, woman or child on any of the Earth’s continents might experience.
“I don’t know …” She said finally. “It shouldn’t work like that. I’m broken.”
Sarah knew the moment she had cast the knife to the carpet that there would be no way to complete the grisly procedure, and that if Derek and herself could not do it then it would not be done. She did not trust anybody else bar John and it would be better for everyone concerned that he was not involved.
The thud of feet on the floor above broke her concentration.
“John is getting up early,” Cameron observed. “Don’t let him see me.”
Sarah groaned, climbing up to her feet and taking a hurried glance around as if a trapdoor leading to a Terminator-sized holding cell might have been installed under her feet recently. Scratching her head and trying to ignore the padding of her son upstairs, she stooped down and hooked her arms underneath Cameron’s legs at the knee, and around the back underneath her shoulders.
Her own legs threatened to buckle under the weight of the Terminator, as Sarah struggled to lift the unbelievably heavy weight that was somehow compressed to fit into Cameron’s lithe frame. Taking one heavy step after another and narrowly missing the kitchen doorway with the head of the heavy girl, Sarah unsteadily made her slow way out of the house.
The short distance to the Garage seemed a marathon as she felt her hamstrings tremble and her forearms grow heavy and numb. Boasting a considerable amount of muscle and strength on her own athletic frame, Sarah nonetheless almost succeeded in dropping Cameron as she span to avoid a broken branch on the driveway.
Panting heavily, Sarah pushed open the Garage door and stumbled inside. Finding her knees unwilling to bend forwards, she nudged a mattress leaning up against the wall with her thigh and closed her eyes tightly at the thick cloud of choking dust that was kicked up as it tipped to the floor. In a soft fall rather than an any coordinated bend Sarah brought Cameron down to the mattress, rolling on to the floor to stare up at the timber roof beams and try to get her breath back.
Cameron cocked her head to the side to glance at Sarah. “I will wait here.”
The older woman rolled her eyes and climbed back to her feet, stretching her legs and back to try and restore some feeling to the joints which had been pushed hard, carrying a girl that seemed to weigh as if she had been made out of metal. And was.
“Don’t go anywhere,” Sarah replied flippantly as she pulled the Garage door closed and quickly made her way back across the garden, into the kitchen and almost straight into her son. Still dressed in the same T-shirt from the night before and clutching an empty jar of peanut butter, he was locked in a life-or-death struggle to find enough on the end of the knife to spread on a piece of bread.
He glanced up, a faint smile on his lips. “Any sign of her?”
Sarah swiftly suppressed the urge to glance in any direction save the one in front, suddenly becoming keenly aware of how tired she looked and the sheen of sweat plastering her upper arms and face. She shook her head as casually as she could, crossing over to fill the kettle at the sink.
“Been in the Garage?” He asked, gesturing to the thick patterns of dust staining her clothes. He rolled up the bread and stuffed it into this mouth, turning to put the empty jar back in the fridge.
Using her motherly skills to her advantage to divert his attention, she snatched the jar out of his hand with a pointed glance and dropped it into the bin, shrugging her shoulders slightly. “Just checking through boxes - making sure we don’t leave anything behind.”
“There’s still a lot of notes from the resistance,” She added, instantly regretting the turn of phrase and hoping her explanation would be enough. “Derek’s loading up the truck now - Get dressed and give him a hand.”
John opened his mouth as if to argue despite it still being stuffed with peanut butter, before shrugging and wandering back through to the living room. Sarah followed closely behind, her eyes instantly fixing on the bloody knife abandoned on the carpet. Stretching a leg across she brought her foot down to cover the blade just as her son turned to face her. “She might still be alive …”
“I know,” Sarah offered with a reassuring nod. Her senses prickled at the thought of such a bare-faced lie, told to the honest and slightly pained features of her son and she turned away - it was all she could do to keep her composure.
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