Sarah’s legs burned as they topped yet another rise and she felt every one of her thirty-four years as well as every bit of abuse her body had suffered in the last sixteen, from broken bones to bullet holes. “Stop,” she commanded her companion, who was a good hundred yards ahead of her, “We need to stop.” She sank down on a rock, wiping futilely at the sweat beaded on her forehead. Even though the weather was cool and breezy, the near continuous exertion as they trampled through the hill country of Southern California was hot and exhausting to the older woman.
Cameron turned, walking back to where Sarah was sitting, her eyes judging the position of the sun and the distance they had already traveled. “We need to hurry. We want to be there before the workmen arrive.” Sarah’s eyes narrowed to a glare as she prepared a retort, but Cameron seemed to sense her growing anger. “But we have time for a short break.” She extended a water bottle to Sarah, almost as a peace offering, and Sarah accepted it, her gratitude mixed with the resentment at yet another reminder of the perfection of the terminators. Cameron, after two solid hours of trekking over ridges and down dry creek beds, looked none the worse for wear except for a smudge of dirt on her cheek.
In contrast, Sarah felt gritty and dirty and in need of a shower. Sweat had soaked through both of Sarah’s tank tops, plastering the cloth to her skin. Her nails were torn and her jeans were dirty at the knees from scrambling up steep ravines. She gazed up the hill they were currently climbing, the hard brown earth uneven and cracked, and sighed. “Are you sure?” she questioned the terminator sharply.
“Am I sure?” Cameron tilted her head to the side.
“That there’s some secret government project going on at this bunker that has something to do with Skynet?”
“No, I am not sure,” Cameron replied evenly. “The intelligence was spotty, but you did not want to wait until I had verification.” It was close to a rebuke, and Sarah frowned at the reminder that her current discomfort was entirely her own fault, as she had been the one to insist that they needed to check out the silo immediately. Admittedly, it was the closest thing they had to a lead in nearly three months, and her frustration with a trail gone cold had Sarah jumping on any possible hint of the development of a system which could evolve into Skynet.
With a sigh and an impatient ‘go on’ gesture at the path up the hill, Sarah slid off the rock and straightened, only to gasp as a sharp pain shot through her leg. “Damn,” she muttered as she leaned over to massage the place where her leg had been broken by the first terminator; the climbing was clearly aggravating the old injury. She felt rather than saw Cameron’s questioning look and she growled, “Not all of us can be nearly indestructible killing machines.”
“I know.” The terminator’s voice contained no pity or judgment, and that almost made it worse. “I would offer to carry you,” and Sarah’s head snapped up angrily and her hand tightened on her gun, “but you might shoot me and that would give away our position.”
“You wouldn’t feel it if I did,” muttered Sarah under her breath to hide her surprise at Cameron’s insight. She straightened, tossed the water bottle to Cameron, and said, “Lead on, girlie.” Cameron began her sure-footed march up the hill, the rocky dirt underfoot crunching under the deceptive weight of the terminator. Sarah trudged along behind her, ignoring the steady throb of pain in her leg as her boots slid on the loose gravel.
The day hadn’t started off badly; they had left well before dawn and Sarah had slept while Cameron drove. She had woken as dawn was breaking in the rearview mirror, bathing the car in a soft yellow glow. Driving west along the shore, Cameron had been framed by the blue, sun-kissed expanse of ocean stretching to the horizon, brilliant flashes of light capping the crests of waves. She looked, Sarah had thought, utterly human, until, as if sensing Sarah’s eyes on her, Cameron had turned her head. Her eyes were dull and expressionless and the sun didn’t light them, perhaps knowing that there was nothing there to illuminate. “We’ll be there soon,” she said before turning her eyes back to the road. Sarah shivered.
Spotting a diner up ahead, she instructed, “Pull over. I need coffee.” Sarah stretched as she got out of the car, feeling the muscles along her back pop, and she left Cameron at the car without a word. Coming out of the diner, she found Cameron staring at the waves as if she were trying to quantify their beauty. “Hard to believe, isn’t it?” Sarah said, her eyes drawn to the crashing surf as she blew on her still-too-hot-to-drink cup of coffee. The rising sun was burning off the last bit of haze and Sarah could feel it already beginning to warm her shoulders, the breeze from the ocean and the heat from the sun already beginning a battle over her body.
Sarah indicated the natural beauty that surrounded them with a nod of her head. “That all this will be gone in less than four years.” Cameron’s eyes were fixed on her and, for a second, Sarah thought she detected some unreadable emotion there, but whatever she saw was fleeting, and later, she would say that she didn’t see anything at all.
“It is hard to believe,” Cameron said at last, in her typical monotone. With that, she pivoted and headed back to the car. Sarah stood there for another minute longer. This early in the morning, the road was empty and quiet and Sarah realized that she rarely stopped to truly see the world around her. The sharp salty air was undiluted by diesel and no motors drowned out the dull roar of the crashing surf. She inhaled deeply, feeling her lungs expand and fill, and she grinned, almost giddy, at the sudden easing of tension along her shoulders. Not even Cameron’s puzzled look as she walked back to the car dampened her mood. Sarah settled into the passenger seat as Cameron turned the ignition, for once not asking one of her endless supply of questions.
Sarah sipped her still-steaming coffee and reviewed the unclassified maps of Vandeberg Air Force Base they had found online. The best and most detailed came from a fringe group of anti-nuke activists who, if their website was to be believed, spent much of their time breaking into military installations and documenting the location and proliferation of nuclear weapon systems. The group, Sarah was amused to discover, was named Dr. Strangelove for Peace. Leaning her head back against the headrest, Sarah realized that she might have utilized this group’s resources rather than heading out on their own. The group probably had people already watching the base and might have been able to provide current information on their target, an inactive Titan missile complex on the southern edge of the base.
Cameron had come across intelligence that the silo was being reactivated for a secret government artificial intelligence project, if a few random blogs analyzing DOD contracts, equipment requests, and personnel reassignments could be classified as intelligence. But taken together, the presence of four of the military’s top AI researchers, enough servers to handle all of Silicon Valley’s data needs for the next 10 years, and high-end experimental computer processors, was something that Sarah wanted to check out. Cameron had suggested that they try to verify the primary sources in more detail, but Sarah hadn’t wanted to wait. She had gotten antsy after they had recovered Andy Goode’s computer, the Turk, and discovered that it was nowhere near advanced enough to evolve into Skynet in less than four years. Besides, Derek had seized onto Cameron’s reluctance to investigate as proof that the terminator couldn’t be trusted, so Sarah decided that a recon mission might defuse the tension. At a minimum, Derek and Cameron would be separated for a few hours. Thus, the impromptu road trip several hours north of Los Angeles on a beautiful spring morning.
- - -
“Nothing.” Sarah lowered the binoculars. “No trucks, no workmen, no activity at all. It looks abandoned,” she accused. They were lying in a drainage ditch a hundred yards from the complex, the sparse vegetation providing little cover. Not, Sarah thought, that they needed any if the silo was as abandoned as it looked.
“It is supposed to be abandoned,” Cameron agreed mildly as she scanned the launch pads and buildings for any movement or sign of life.
Sarah shifted to glare at her companion, pebbles scraping against her jeans and rattling down as her boots dug into the soil. “No, there’s supposed to be a bunch of government types building the computer system that destroys the world!” Her frustration at yet another dead end boiled over. “We came forward in time, eight years closer to Judgment Day, because you said we would be able to find and stop Skynet.”
Cameron was uncharacteristically silent in the face of Sarah’s accusation. Instead, she completed her sweep of the launch complex, finding nothing on enhanced vision or on infrared. “We should make sure.”
“We should investigate the silo,” she said, indicating the pad on the eastern side of the complex.
“You’re kidding, right? Go walking into an Air Force missile silo in broad daylight?” She swept her hand to indicate the sprawling complex; except for the single outbuilding on the far side and the occasional rise of concrete installations poking through the baked earth, it was bare and exposed. They would have to cut through the fence and traverse over two hundred yards; if anyone was watching the compound, they would be spotted immediately.
“We should ascertain if the intelligence is false,” insisted Cameron stubbornly.
“And if it isn’t? We go walking into a secret government installation-what then? Politely ask them if they are building the supercomputer that will destroy the world? Ask them nicely to stop?” Sarah knew the sarcasm was wasted on the terminator, but it kept her from slapping her, sometimes.
“The lack of activity suggests otherwise.” Cameron paused, then said, “Either we check out the bunker or we turn around and go back.” Cameron indicated the rolling hills behind them.
Sarah hated when the terminator was right, almost more than she hated being wrong, and this was one of those times. She raised the binoculars and surveyed the complex one last time. “So how do we get in?” she asked, a hint of resignation creeping into her tone.
Cameron cut through the chain link fence and easily bent back the edges as Sarah wiggled through. Sprinting across the compound to the entrance stairwell, Sarah felt a tingling sensation between her shoulder blades, like a target on her back, but no shouts or shots rang out as they clamored down first concrete and then metal, stairs, descending several meters below ground to a massive white-and-black door. Bent over and propped up by her hands on her thighs, Sarah gulped large mouthfuls of air, her breathing loud in the enclosed space. I am getting too old for this, she thought as her lungs burned and her leg began a renewed protest. She regarded the door with a frown. “Now what?”
Cameron pulled on the door and it swung open silently, moving easily despite its 12-inch width. Across the small hallway there was a matching door. “It’s a double lock mechanism,” Cameron explained. “We have to close this door before we can open the interior door.”
“Looks like a great place to catch a couple of intruders,” Sarah commented wryly, but she followed Cameron, snapping on a flashlight as the door closed and cut off the bright California sunlight. With a loud click, the bolts slid into place, and for a second, Sarah held her breath, waiting for something to happen. The sound of the bolts on the interior door unlocking and the huge door swinging open seemed anticlimactic to say the least.
They stood in the middle of a 250-foot corridor, lit by small emergency lights every few feet. The whole thing seemed remarkably clean and well-preserved, Sarah thought, as she swept her flashlight up and down the narrow corridor, yet silent and eerie. The air did not feel as clammy nor smell as stale as she expected, and their movements did not raise clouds of dust. It was like the silo had been hermetically sealed and was waiting for someone to return and activate it again.
But even though it seemed well-maintained, it was apparent that it had been years since anyone had been there. Satisfied that they were indeed on a wild goose chase, she said, “Nobody’s home. Let’s go.” But Cameron was already heading down the corridor to the left, saying, “The control room should be this way.”
Sarah followed her with a sigh, but she decided she would take advantage of the terminator’s inquisitiveness and find someplace to sit down and rest her leg. Sinking gratefully into a green leather chair that had seen better days, Sarah surveyed the antiquated computer technology that surrounded them; several person-high computers ringed the room, the amber and yellow lamps catching the light as Sarah idly swept her flashlight around. Cameron circled slowly, seeming to catalog the components with interest. She stopped by Sarah and handed her the water bottle without comment, and Sarah grimaced at the sight she was no doubt presenting that had the terminator trying to take care of her.
“Satisfied?” Sarah asked. “The components here couldn’t be used to make an Atari, much less Skynet.” Seeing Cameron’s eyebrow lift, Sarah explained before the inevitable question could come. “It’s an obsolete computer game console…”
“…popular in the 1980s, yes, I know.”
“Figures you’d know your ancestors,” quipped Sarah, her lips twisting into a half-grin.
Cameron considered for a moment. “I already have enough nicknames,” she stated.
Sarah sputtered and nearly choked on her water. “What?”
“You call me missy, girlie, tin man, tin miss, Pinocchio, data, Ms. Bits, fembot, metalhead, robogirl, and after that movie last week, Cherry 2000. I don’t need to be called Atari as well.”
“I was actually thinking more along the lines of twenty-six-hundred,” Sarah grinned as Cameron had not been too far from the mark, “But you’re right, you don’t need any more nicknames.” She pushed herself to her feet, feeling her muscles scream in protest at the sudden movement. She was in the corridor leading back to the blast doors before she threw back over her shoulder, “Besides, X-Box suits you better.” If she hadn’t known better, she could have sworn she heard the terminator sigh.
The inner blast door handle was smooth and cool to the touch, and it didn’t budge when Sarah pulled. She frowned in irritation at yet another thing that she was shown to be weak and inferior to the terminator. Hearing Cameron’s boots rattle the plating beneath their feet, Sarah stepped aside and gave a ‘get to it’ hand wave at the door. She felt the first shiver of fear worm its way down her spine when Cameron’s strength had the same effect hers had: none. The handle made a dull clunking sound when the terminator released it and stared at the door quizzically. “What’s wrong?” Sarah asked, her words betraying her tension.
“It won’t open.”
“What do you mean, it won’t open? Open it.”
“You’re a terminator. Do your thing.” When Cameron turned her quizzical gaze to Sarah, she gestured at the door impatiently. “Bust through it or something.”
Cameron looked from Sarah to the door and back again. “The door is designed to withstand a direct nuclear detonation. Given my composition and density, I can not ‘bust through it’.” She paused, considering. “At least not in your lifetime.”
The fear blossomed into full-fledged panic, and Sarah launched herself at the door, pounding on it furiously in impotent rage, until Cameron captured her wrists and wrestled her, bodily, away from the door. “If my endoskeleton is incapable of breaking the door, then you will not be able to either,” she explained as tried to subdue an out-of-control Sarah without hurting her. “You will injure yourself.”
Sarah’s fist connected with Cameron’s cheek and she pushed away from the terminator’s body. “Fuck you,” she snarled, twisting her arms frantically as the grip on her wrists did not slacken. “Let me go.” The speed with which Cameron complied sent Sarah crashing into the metal beams that ran along the corridor. For a second, Sarah simply hung there, holding on the scaffolding for support as she breathed to calm herself and the fear coursing through her body. With calmness came clarity. “You did this,” she said quietly, then spun to face the terminator. “What did you do?”