Jesse had wondered, after the Jimmy Carter went down, how it was possible to see people as pawns, nothing more than tokens to be sacrificed on the altar of a higher cause.
She hadn't ever expected to know.
Pretty girl, matted blonde hair straggled over her face, crouching in the tunnels.
The perfect bait. The perfect lure to draw Connor close and shift his view of the world to exclude metal forever.
Finding Connor took longer than Jesse expected.
How hard could one teenager be to locate? Very hard indeed, it turned out.
Until Jesse zeroed in on her target, she built a network of contacts to enable her quest, stole enough gemstones to live a comfortable life, and taught Riley how to walk in the sun.
"You could just go in, pick things out, and give them paper?"
Riley asked the question innocently, marvel in her voice.
Jesse surveyed the expanse of apples on display in the grocery store -- Granny Smith, Gala, Fuji, Honey Crisp, the dread Red Delicious -- and smiled.
The section of ice cream brought widened eyes and exclamations, but that was nothing to sharing a carton of chocolate fudge ripple, half-melting over hands, while giggling at how absurd it was that this delight existed in the world.
Certainties were rarer than clean air and water after Judgment Day, but there were a few: beware the machines, stay down while the sun was up, and protect human life as the most precious thing remaining in the world.
When the bombs fell, Jesse was old enough to understand that nothing would ever be the same again. Separated from her family, clawing for survival, she wanted to be a weapon in the war against Skynet.
The Jimmy Carter dove fast and deep between ocean currents. Jesse ascended one rung on the ladder, two, three, mission by mission, until she became ranking human aboard, first officer to Queeg. It wasn't that Jesse trusted the reprogrammed Trip-8. She'd never trust metal entirely.
She didn't expect complete betrayal, though.
And never triggered by her own side's action.
Riley had to be tutored through the routine of day to day life. How to wash, dress, eat. What to expect at school. How to approach other teenagers.
In Jesse's mind, they made a curious sort of ouroboros.
One experienced a peaceful childhood, loved football and pretty dresses and Pink's "fuck you" attitude, songs turned up loud while a snotty younger brother pounded on the door and complained. Thought Katy Perry was a poser, and grudgingly accepted Lady Gaga as kind of wild. Swam competitively, the individual medley like her idol Stephanie Rice. Got good grades in school, even as she hung out with the less desirable crowd and flirted with the bad boys, all innuendo and tease.
The other scrabbled for food amid tunnel leavings, only heard a capella songs, was taught to read in snatches of time between Skynet attacks, never knew her mother and father because an infiltrator unit slaughtered them when she was a toddler. She'd never seen open water. She eyed boys sideways, but had yet to progress to fucking them.
One saw her world die in flame and ash and a sleet of radioactive particles, never knew for certain if her family lived, but decided she couldn't let it matter, and scavenged and fought for her place in the resistance.
The other was brought to a world of ease and comfort and contrast, basic needs met and exceeded.
Jesse tried to forge Riley into a blade, razor sharp, but the steel was too brittle. Tempered wrong, she shattered instead of cutting deep, failing to excise the cancer of the metal from John Connor's soul.
Half-feral tunnel rats didn't learn history, and Jesse's Australia-centered knowledge of the world before Skynet wasn't deemed essential to a California public school curriculum.
"So they fought wars? And killed other people?"
Jesse nodded, trying to rein in her impatience. "Read your lesson, love."
She remembered studying nuclear fission so as to understand the reactor that powered SeaWolf submarines. Uranium, plutonium, neutron emissions, criticality, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, heat creating steam and driving the engine her vessel used to swim under the waves.
"I am become Death, destroyer of worlds," Riley recited aloud. "Oppenheimer, after the Trinity test." Jesse could hear the quotation marks.
"Wait until you hit the space race," Jesse said, remembering the awe her mother had felt when looking at pictures taken on other worlds.
Another hope the machines had destroyed.
Spotting Connor meant spotting Derek, and for all that Cully's brother, the tech who created magic spheres, promised that she was being sent to the same time as Derek, Jesse hadn't expected to see him again.
He looked good, well fed, and was moving with his usual efficient power.
After they recovered from the epidemic at Serrano Point, Jesse was able to indulge her impulse to get to know Derek better.
She traded a scarf for a bottle of rotgut gin and lured him out to an isolated spot in the tunnels with a direct gaze and a drawled invitation to share a drink with a sailor.
The quirk of his lips in response made her want to bite it.
Later, after they'd slammed back a few slugs of gin, she indulged herself.
Derek bit back. Very few things had ever made Jesse happier.
They fucked against the walls, fast and intense. Derek's arms supported her weight without strain, and his rhythm matched hers. Jesse buried her face in his neck, flexed her legs around his hips, breathed in the smell of dirt and sweat on his skin.
She came gasping, trying to stay quiet so nobody would interrupt them.
Her instructors told Jesse about the service before J-Day. Submariners used to negotiate a barrage of psychological tests to ensure they wouldn't go barmy from the isolation, the lack of sunlight, the knowledge of water pressing on the fragile shell of their craft. If they might, they were eliminated from crew consideration.
Nobody saw sun after the bombs fell, so that criterion was blown out the hatch. A trip to Perth was a cakewalk compared to life underground.
(When she travelled to paradise, Jesse loved sunbathing by the pool the most. It felt simultaneously transgressive -- ignoring the skin cancer risk that was once warned against in ever-present advertisements -- and exultant. Bask in and absorb UV radiation, because none of the truly bad kind existed yet.)
After surfacing from the last voyage of the Jimmy Carter, Jesse thought there should have been more tests. Personality profiles. Training. Lists of warning signs and how to react to them. Sure, they were clawing for resources and sailors, but Dietze's fit of paranoia should have been foreseen.
Nervousness jittering from her fingers, Riley asked for reassurance: "How do I talk to him?"
"Just be yourself, love. No need to make this complicated."
"But he's John Connor," Riley said, awe and legend imbuing the name with power.
Jesse stroked down the smooth line of Riley's cheek. "Not yet."
Riley looked down, abashed. Jesse let herself reach out and tuck blonde hair (clean, untangled) behind the shell of an ear. "He's just a boy. Nothing special. But you -- you're fantastic, sweetie. And mysterious. And powerful. Every girl is. Believe that, and the rest is easy. Carrots and apples."
She allowed herself to get lost in Derek's skin, in his warmth and strength. The pleasure swept through her, pulses of fire flickering up her spine and melting her core.
She nipped at his pectoral muscles, lazily traced the curved lines of his ribs. Her hands edged near his cock but never arrived. She stifled a laugh at his muffled curses.
Derek retaliated by going down on her. He licked slowly at her cunt, pushed his tongue inside, then took her higher and higher with languorous intent. Jesse clutched at his shoulders, tried to speed the pace with jerks of her hips, but Derek wouldn't be hurried.
His fingers stroked her side, the one with the ugly scar. Jesse pushed the bad memory away and reveled in the velvet friction tormenting her clitoris.
The wide, cool expanse of the bed made the heat they created feel all the more incendiary.
Jesse kept her attention on the larger plan, so what matter the obvious neediness Riley displayed as she slipped into Connor's wake?
It was one predicament after another:
The metal scared Riley (Jesse would be scared too, remembered the blankness on Cameron's face as she imparted news of a nascent life destroyed, remembered hating her for not caring, even as she mouthed condolences).
An illicit trip to Mexico that left Riley genuinely shaken ("What do I say, Jesse? A Terminator was after him and I ran away! Do I pretend I didn't see? How do I keep from asking all the wrong questions?").
Maternal disapproval ("Use it, sweetie. Every teenage boy wants to rebel, at least a little.").
Paranoia that Cameron was suspicious of Riley in particular ("She doesn't know anything, and she'd be wary about anybody. It's not you."
"But John listens to her -- why would he listen to her? I don't understand.").
Irritation bubbled through Jesse, that the girl wouldn't get with the program and do what Jesse wanted. Why was she so unstable? Running away from her foster parents? From a bedroom and clothes and guaranteed meals? They weren't abusing Riley. She should have been happy instead of veering between terror and despair.
When it all began to crumble, Jesse tried to gather the scraps of her plan and draw the lines again.
Walking through the mall to the food court, she kept getting hit with bouts of déjà vu when the playlist blared by stores was the soundtrack to her adolescence. Same melodies, same lyrics, same songs, half a life ago. She was what was different, a quantum shift in experience and knowledge from that innocent girl.
This world, this ease, would be gone soon. Jesse had to complete what she could, and she had to do it now.
Another crisis, as Derek told her that Riley tried to kill herself. Jesse decided she had to regroup, marshal for one last push.
And then what did Riley give her but weakness? Liberated from Connor's watch in the hospital, yet Riley couldn't stay in the hotel room, bandages wrapped around her slit wrists or no. What if Derek came? What if the metal spotted Riley?
Jesse had to stay safe or she couldn't achieve her ends.
Later, much, much later, after the bullet wound healed enough that moving was no longer agony, Jesse hid with Sarah Connor while a Trip-8 hunted them. They were waiting for the best moment to spring their ambush.
Jesse never understood why Sarah got talkative. Sometimes it seemed like she had lessons to impart, like teaching John Connor until he disappeared into the future wasn't enough to sate her need to guide and illuminate.
The story, about mental institutions and liquid mercury taking human shape, horrified Jesse. The worst part, though, was how Sarah relayed John's reaction to the Terminator sent back to protect him.
Connor might have told Jesse that human life was sacred, that the dead couldn't be replaced, but that wasn't what that particular machine had taught him.
Jesse realized, finally, that she would always have been too late.
John Connor would always see metal with two sets of eyes: one as the hunted cowering from a predator, and one as the only friend reaching out a hand to help.