“To be nobody but yourself in a world that's doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight.” -- e.e. cummings
John wants to tell them, but what can he say? “So, hi, I’m your son,” to a man who isn’t much older than he is? “I’m the leader of the Resistance and, hey, your nephew,” to a man carrying a gun that big?
No. Really, just -- no.
He needs time – and the irony isn’t lost on him – to think. He needs them to be not staring at him like that. He needs to know where the hell Weaver went, where Cameron’s chip is and how he’s getting home.
And he needs clothes.
Maybe it’s shock, maybe it’s because heavily armed resistance fighters are surrounding him - maybe it’s because he’s sixteen and Cameron’s human body is right behind him - but he’ll take clothes over everything else.
It’s a risk, but he tells them he recognised Derek’s voice from a transmission – at least a couple of them have a radio clipped to their belt - and rushes into an apology for stealing the coat before anyone has time to ask searching questions about naked people appearing in the middle of a war.
He plays the pathetic up – he’s half-naked and scared and alone, so it isn’t hard. They laugh at him a little and take him back to the tunnels.
There are shadows moving, and somewhere in the distance a baby is crying thin and high. The rest is the hiss of the pipes and the rattling far above. John’s pretty sure they’re taking him in circles and that’s okay, he wouldn’t trust him either. He’s just glad they found him a pair of old boots – two sizes too big, but at least he’s not walking barefoot on the jagged bits of rusted metal they seem to be calling the ground.
They talk amongst themselves and don’t try to include him, which works for John. They’re teasing Derek about his obsession with water filters; it’s not exactly world ending stuff. That happened already. He keeps his head down and tries to work this through. The trouble with that, though, is it needs a start and a finish and all he’s got is the background terror he’s trying not to let through.
For a while, it’s just enough to walk.
“You okay?” When he doesn’t answer, an elbow catches him in the ribs and he jerks his head up. Cameron – no, Allison – is looking at him with more curiosity than concern. That works for him too; laughter he can deal with, kindness might kill him.
“Yeah.” His voice sound ragged, he coughs and tries again. “Yeah, I’m fine.”
“Alli, leave him alone,” says Derek. It’s not a command, it’s a request and John can hear the fondness there. He wonders if they’re together and then he remembers Jesse.
“I was just checking on him, he looks like he’s walking dead.”
John manages, “I’m fine,” at the same time as Derek answers, “He’s fine.”
Kyle laughs, “See, it must be true.” But he hangs a little further back for what turns out to be their last circuit through the tunnel and John tries not to notice him watching out the corner of his eye,
At an intersect of tunnels that looks exactly the same as every other one they’ve passed, Derek stops just long enough to say, “Wait here.”
They leave John there, in the dark, and only Allison smiles a goodbye. When they turn a corner the light is gone completely and he shuts his eyes when they begin to ache from trying to find it. It’s even darker than the desert was; at least in the desert there were stars.
“I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” he whispers, and isn’t sure if he makes it better or worse.
A hundred and fourteen heartbeats later, a pale blue light flickers in the distance – at least, he thinks it’s the distance. He’s lost all perspective; it could be a bonfire a hundred feet away for all he knows.
It isn’t. As it comes towards him, he can see a woman’s shape. She’s holding a light stick in one hand and limping slowly through the debris. After a moment he starts to pick his way towards her.
When he reaches her, hard gray eyes look him up and down. She purses her lips and then gives him some torn up BDUs and a ragged sweater that used to be pink. There’s a faded stain in a darker color that looks black in the shadows; it’s across the collar and down the chest, he guesses the sweater’s owner won’t be back for it.
He pulls both on quickly and says, “Thank you.”
She nods but doesn’t answer, he tries not to notice the lingering look she gives the blood before she beckons him to follow her.
Kyle never claimed his coat, either. John jams his hands deeper into the pockets and doesn’t mind the cold so much.
Three more lengths of tunnel and he learns that the future is a twenty by twenty concrete-lined room, with ten beds and fifty people. It’s where – finally - all men and women are equal as they lie in the dirt and listen to their children cry.
There’s a rank stench and it’s made no better by the smoke of a small fire, cooking some kind of stew. There’s a pile of battered cans next to the wall with no labels.
He finds a small space by the wall and slides down to sit on his heels; he shakes his head when a man offers him a bowl of – of stew.
“You should eat, you young ones need to eat.” The man’s voice is rough and tired but there’s a hint of something there that reminds John of school.
“Were you a teacher?” He blurts it out before he really thinks about it, but at least it distracts the man from the bowl.
The man blinks, hand still outstretched. “Yes, I think I was.” There’s something in his expression that’s too painful to be a smile and too amused to be anger. “Hadn’t thought of that in years. How’d you know?”
“You – you remind me of someone I used to know.”
The man laughs like he’s been told a tired, old joke. When John thinks about it, he guesses he has.
“I’m John, by the way.” He gives a little wave.
The man reaches down to put the bowl at John’s side and then straightens again, “Henry. You take care of yourself, John.”
John murmurs something polite to Henry’s retreating back and it’s about then he realizes his mom didn’t stop it. It’s right after that he realizes he never really believed she could. His chest hurts.
He gives the bowl to a little boy – or maybe it’s a little girl – with huge, hungry eyes who says, “I can’t, I’ve had mine.”
John remembers Savannah and smiles as encouragingly as he can. “It’s a present.”
The kid doesn’t look convinced, so John presses the bowl into his – her – hands and says, “Young ones need to eat.”
They don’t need a third offer; the gift of warm dog food goes down fast.
Maybe it’s morning, he has no idea. He slept, he thinks, but between one breath and the next he noticed he was awake and he couldn’t stay anymore. He heads back into the tunnels at a run and only avoids knocking down the woman walking in by swerving into the wall at the last moment.
“You look really familiar,” says Cameron’s voice, but not with Cameron’s measured monotone.
He finds a smile, turns and gives it to Allison. “Just got one of those faces, I guess.”
”And you’re really clean.” Her nose wrinkles. “You were really clean.”
He was ready for this, at least. “It was raining” – it was, it is, he can still hear it somewhere high above – “I was getting clean and then I thought I heard something so I ran …” He trails away with an abashed expression and she laughs.
“You’re lucky we found you.”
“Yeah. I am. Sweet like carrots and apples, right?” Riley. Oh, God. Riley. He swallows and tries to sound as uncaring as possible as he asks, “Hey, is there a girl called Riley here?”
She frowns a little at whatever’s in his expression and shakes her head. “I don’t think so.”
He nearly asks about Jesse, but that’s a question he doesn’t want answered. He’s not sure he can bring himself to ask about Ellison or even Savannah just yet.
He may never be able to ask about Sarah Connor.
They stand staring awkwardly at each other until Allison asks, “Where are you out of?”
He opens his mouth but has no idea what to say; he’s lucky when she nods understandingly. “Yeah, we don’t like people knowing we’re here either. Must’ve been close to hear Derek, though. The radio range isn’t far.”
For a moment she’s almost as unreadable as Cameron; he smiles. “Maybe I can take a look. I’m pretty good with that stuff.”
“You’re a tech?” Her focus sharpens; she says the word like it’s a title.
He hesitates and then shrugs. “I guess, kind of. I’m just good with machines.” He wonders if he’s made a mistake, if they’ll think he’s with the metal.
Allison’s eyes narrow with intent and she’s never looked so much like Cameron. “Who taught you?”
He tries another smile; it feels stiff and wrong and his eyes are burning in the fumes. “My mom. She taught me a lot of things.”
Allison leads him through the tunnels and up levels until the air begins to clear. It’s cleaner and the few people they meet are wearing cleaner clothes, some are even in something like a uniform.
He’s angry for the people below for just a second, until he understands these people are the ones for the metal to find and fight and never look beyond. They’re the sacrifice.
“Yeah,” says Allison. “It’s colder up here.”
They wait in a small office; it’s got a table and a lamp and it’s completely incongruous to the horror below them – or even outside the main door. John can’t stop staring at the reflection of the fountain pen in the varnish.
Derek’s head appears around the doorframe and he studies them for a beat before he looks at Allison and says, “Him? Seriously?”
John forgets this Derek isn’t really Derek and mutters, “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Derek’s expression clears, but John knows he’s amused. It took him three weeks to decipher his uncle, but he did.
“We found you naked and alone in an abandoned building, it wasn’t real inspiring,” Derek points out.
In his peripheral vision, John can see Allison trying not to laugh.
He isn’t going to blush. He thins his mouth and jerks his chin up. “Yeah, like you’ve never had a bad day.”
Now Derek does grin, but it’s mostly made of teeth. “Okay, Alli says you know tech.”
Derek: it turns out there isn’t a version anywhere who’s good with polite small talk.
John shrugs. “Computers, electronics; I can probably MacGyver a water filter if you want one.”
Derek scowls as John takes up the heckling started by Kyle, but there’s a tolerant amusement under it. He’s more relaxed here than he ever was in the past; John doesn’t get it, but he thinks one day he will.
“MacGuyver? Little before your time.” Derek holds up a hand, “Your mom tell you about that too?” He shakes his head a little as John starts to reply, “Never mind, come with me.”
And that’s how John meets a T-600.
It’s powered down and broken, but the synthetic skin is intact enough that John can see what used to be a rubbery face. It’s at least eight feet tall and it could never be mistaken for human, but the future is written in its existence. He searches the skull plate and finds the ridge he’s looking for. Twenty seconds and the tip of a knife later and he’s pulling out a chip. It’s twice as large as Cameron’s and covered in thick, red oil.
It’s not a Tin Man; it’s more like a Tin Mannequin.
Allison left them at the door, but Derek is watching him, eyes shuttered. John wipes at the chip with the cuff of his sweater and then looks up at him. “What?”
“You don’t look surprised.”
John keeps wiping the oil away; it gives him an excuse to look down. He waits until he’s sure he can sound unconcerned and then replies, “Should I?”
“We’ve never seen anything like it.”
John glances up and takes in Derek’s appearance under the grime. He doesn’t look younger, but no one looks young here. He looks less worn away.
He turns away and hopes his tone will still hide what his expression really won’t. “We have. Up north. I guess they took a little longer to get to you guys.”
But maybe turning away was a mistake, because he can’t get a measure of anything in Derek’s impassive, “Guess so.”
“They – they’re saying there are more life-like models out there too. Harder to spot. But the dogs go crazy when they’re around.”
“They did for that one, we’re trying to get more.”
Derek is silent for a long time after that, but John knows he’s watching; Derek’s silences are a solid presence.
He puts the knife down and isn’t sure what to say. The T-600 is crayons and building blocks compared to Cameron’s build; he could do this in his sleep.
And still Derek says nothing.
When John turns around, Derek is gone.
They leave him for a couple of hours, he thinks, and then Allison appears to take him back through the tunnels. She’s silent and John can’t think of anything he wants to say anyway, until he realizes he doesn’t recognise the tunnels they’re walking through.
They’re not the light gray of command or the blackened concrete of below, these walls are a reddish color - as if they’re rusting.
He slows and asks, “Where are we going?”
Allison reaches out to tug at his arm. “Derek said to take you home, I’m taking you home.”
He lets himself be pulled back to a walk and can’t help noticing her hand is still around his wrist. “Where’s home?”
“Here’s home.” She pushes on a steel door that swings in on another tunnel. The noise level goes from drips to the murmur of voices, underscored by the rumble of turbines.
Dim lights swing above, illuminating old brick arches covered in graffiti. Some of the arches have thin blankets draped across them in a nod to privacy, and here and there John can see groups of men and women huddled around small stoves.
In the distance he can just about make out a table piled high with electric junk, and he understands.
“This is the real command?”
Allison smiles and makes his question an answer, “This is the real command. Welcome to the Resistance.”
She leads him to a small archway with a pile of blankets on one side and a couple of books on the other. The covers are long gone and the tiny print is blurred, but Allison’s gaze dances over them possessively as she checks they’re both there.
John takes an awkward seat by the blankets while she digs in a bag he hadn’t noticed. She drops a battered can – still no label - in front of him and says, “So can you do it?”
He tears his attention away from the can and looks up at her. “Do what?”
Allison looks at him like he’s the crazy one. “Fix the T-600.”
John takes the knife she hands him and starts working at the top of the can. She watches him for a few seconds before relieving him of both.
”Guess your mom didn’t teach you this one.” She’s efficient – she’s had practice – and soon John is holding a can of something green. He stares inside and tries to work out what it is.
Allison bends closer to look and he tries not to notice how warm she is. “Sprouts? Did they can sprouts?”
“They canned everything. What did you get?”
“Pineapple. You want to share?”
They split the cans between them and eat with their fingers.
“So, can you?” Allison asks again.
John wipes his hands on his sweater and laughs. “They didn’t ask me to fix it. Why would I fix it? I like not being extinct.” He keeps the empty cans, he can cut them up, they’ll be useful.
“Not fix, fix” Allison grins and he likes the way her nose crinkles. “Fix.”
“Right, that’s a lot clearer.” He rolls his eyes and just for a moment – only for a moment – he’s with Cameron in school, teasing a machine with no sense of humor just because he can.
“Fix it up good,” says Kyle as he drops down next to them, half landing on an empty can. “Ouch.”
“So watch where you’re going.” John gathers his precious cans up and tries to remember when his greatest ambitions didn’t involve salvaged parts.
His father unsettles him in ways John can’t understand yet and he responds to fear with anger; one more thing his mother taught him. Kyle ignores the sharpness in John’s voice, he always does. John doesn’t know why, but he’s grateful when he remembers to be.
Kyle looks at him hopefully. “Can you? Get at its data, maybe?”
He could do it in thirty minutes, even with a flickering light and fifth-hand parts made of old pineapple cans. He says, “Yeah, maybe. It’s kind of tricky in there.”
He’s not sure why he’s lying to them, except he doesn’t know how to give them a truth they can believe.
The third day, he’s digging around in the T-600’s guts and he knows his mother is dead. Not literally, maybe, but she might as well be. Even if he could go back to her, she wouldn’t be her. Even if she somehow came to him, he wouldn’t be himself.
She left him.
His throat closes and he chokes, Kyle slams him on the back and that really doesn’t help. John pushes him away and draws in breath after shuddering breath until the lump in his chest is gone.
She left him and that’s okay. Because he left her too.
Kyle frowns. “You okay?”
Kyle winces and looks uncomfortable. “Don’t worry about it, a lot of people get – I don’t know, they look around and it’s too much. A lot of people. We don’t know why.”
John’s mouth curls with morbid amusement. One good point about the death of humanity, apparently the therapists went first: there’s no one left to tell him he’s having some kind of panic attack, so he decides he isn’t. “I said I’m fine. Bad air.”
Kyle doesn’t look convinced, but he settles back and watches John work for a while.
John can’t ask when their Judgment Day was; they’d wonder how he didn’t notice – how his all-knowing mother missed that one in his education. Instead he asks, “How old were you? You know, when …”
“Judgment Day? Heh. Twelve. Derek was nineteen, home from the Corps. Lucky. What’s so funny?”
Kyle trails away, looking at him strangely. John realizes he’s smiling.
“Nothing’s funny. It’s just good he was there.” Nothing funny at all. Sarah Connor didn’t stop it, but she held them back for four more years than they’d had before. Long enough for Derek to become a man, get some training – maybe become a leader.
Perhaps this future didn’t have a John Connor because it wouldn’t need one.
He’s surrounded by darkness and the slow, painful ending of his species, and he can’t remember ever feeling so free.
That lasts until his first trip outside.
They hadn’t wanted to take him, they’d argued that Techs were too rare to risk, but he’d convinced them he could take care of himself. It had only taken field-stripping an AK-47 and giving Kyle a black eye (they’d believed his mother had taught him).
At this point Sarah Connor is becoming legendary; John doesn’t think she’d like that.
Kyle asked if John had a picture. John didn’t.
Before – he calls it ‘before’ now – he had asked Derek what the world had looked like. Derek had shrugged and said there were no birds, and that was all he would say.
John gets it now because, what could he say?
He’s glad the air is so dry and acrid with toxins that everyone’s eyes are watering.
It’s a short-range dusk recon, minimal risk, and even so John is kept firmly in the middle of the group, padded with as much body armor as they can scrounge up and holding a rifle that might actually be heavier than he his.
When the order comes to fan out, Kyle pulls him firmly by the collar and keeps them both low to the ground.
“If you were going to play babysitter, why did you even let me come?” he hisses, and sounds angrier than he really is, but not by much.
“I didn’t let you come, Derek did.” Kyle really doesn’t sound overwhelmed with joy either.
“Fine, then why did Derek let me come?” His vest catches on a jagged rock and he wrenches himself free.
Kyle doesn’t answer, his hand has bunched in John’s collar and John knows the signs. He goes absolutely still and waits for whatever’s out there.
And something’s out there; he can hear it now.
Rocks slide above and behind them. Kyle rolls, throwing himself over John before John has even managed to remember to move.
“Peace, Mister Reese,” says a woman with a soft Scottish burr. “Is that John under there?” Weaver sounds amused, human in a way so far advanced of the T-600s Skynet is currently producing she seems impossible.
Impossible like the end of the world.
“You know her?” Kyle whispers.
John swallows and nods. “Yeah. Yeah, she was at the last camp I was in. Her name’s Catherine.”
Kyle rolls off him warily and John sits up. He can see its outline in the darkness but not much else.
It walks forward with the carefully precise steps he remembers; they worked better when it wore heels. “Are you well, John?”
“Peachy.” He’s trying not to sound like he hates the woman and everything she stands for, he really is, but Kyle’s finger is on the trigger so he’s guessing he’s not doing that well.
“Excellent. You’ll be pleased to know I found my John. You remember John-Henry?” Weaver crouches before them, still in the clothes it made for itself – of itself – when they jumped.
John nods. “I remember.”
“He was here, all the time.” It taps its chest and the smile widens, but thins. John can think of a hundred ways to interpret that and he doesn’t like any of them.
“We were late,” he hazards.
“I suppose it depends on your perspective.”
He licks dry lips. “And Cameron?”
Weaver’s smile fades and it looks almost pensive. As if it could be. Its hand reaches out and taps his armored chest; it says nothing.
Kyle is looking between them now, mystified and suspicious. Those are two states John really doesn’t want a man carrying that many weapons to be in. “John, who is this?”
“A friend of my mother’s.” It’s said without thought, but it brings a choked sort of laugh from Kyle.
“Speaking of your mother, I think she would have wanted you to have this.” Weaver is holding out a hand again, and John already knows what’s there. He doesn’t reach out, but after a moment Kyle does.
“This is your mom?”
John nods, still looking nowhere except in Weaver’s eyes to the soul it doesn’t have.
“You don’t want it?”
John’s lips curve into a smile that doesn’t belong to him. “You keep it.”