The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
Robert Frost (Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening)
It hadn’t snowed in years. No one remembered the exact year they saw their last snowfall, but everyone remembered that it stopped. Something to do with the atmosphere, the rise in the earth’s temperature, global warming getting a great big kick in the ass from all the damage the machines caused just by existing. It wiped out snow and the cycle of seasons and gave them acid rain so toxic that it smoked as it burned into the ground. The machines didn’t care of course. They probably calculated it all up and concluded that snow was meaningless to them and water could damage them and oxygen was irrelevant.
John stood with Derek and Kyle on a hill looking down on a burning city as it snowed. They didn’t know the name of the city. They couldn’t look it up on a map anywhere because even if somehow one had survived the nuclear holocaust and genocide of Judgment Day, it would be meaningless now. The world didn’t look the same anymore. All of the greatest cities the world over were ruins now. Every one of them a ghost town. London, Berlin, New York, Miami, Buenos Aires, all reduced to charred skeletons. For all any of them knew, they were staring down at the ever-burning remains of Los Vegas or Denver. Except this was unlikely because one thing they did know was they were too close to the water for it to be either. They didn’t know the city, but they knew they were somewhere along the California coast.
That and it wasn’t snow falling on them, it was ash.
“It’s really pretty if you don’t think about it,” Kyle said.
“The city?” Derek asked him, incredulous.
“Well, yeah,” Kyle said. He held a hand up and watched the powdery white stuff fall into his palm. He rubbed his fingers together, smearing it grey over his fingertips. “All of it.”
“There could be people down there,” Derek said.
Kyle gave him a disbelieving look.
“There aren’t any people down there,” John said.
They both fell silent and stared at him. Their argument died before it could really begin because even though John could not know that there were no people down there, they believed him. They had to. Besides, they all knew he was right. Modern humans would never have built their homes so out in the open as that. It was an old city, not a new one, built long ago so that people could look out at the beaches or down from their soaring towers and admire the view, not built to last, to conceal and sustain life against all odds as new cities were.
“My mother was alive the last time I saw real snow,” John said out of nowhere.
Kyle and Derek gave him startled glances, then looked at each other in surprise. John didn’t often talk about his past and never just offered it up in conversation.
John noticed the exchange between them and knew what they were thinking. He smiled faintly. “You’re right,” he told Kyle. “It is pretty if you don’t think about it.”
“We should get under cover before it stops,” Derek said. His eyes darted nervously around and he was fairly jittering with anxiety at the three of them so exposed in the open. If not for the way the dust and ash concealed them from machine detection, he would have been dragging John back underground and they all knew it. “John.”
“Hush,” John said simply.
Derek looked like he wanted to say more and argue, but he did what he was told and hushed. Kyle gave him a mocking look and smirked at him. Derek punched him in the arm.
John rolled his eyes and turned from the sight of the burning city to start back down the hill. “Come on. They’ll be coming back with supplies and you should meet them as they come in.”
Cameron was waiting for them at the bottom of the hill and fell into step with John. “You are smiling,” she observed.
“Am I not allowed to smile?” John asked her.
She thought about it. “Yes,” she said. “But you don’t.”
“I’m enjoying the snow,” John said.
“It’s not snow,” she said. “It’s ash. Technically termed fly ash because it rises. One part silicon dioxide, one part calcium oxide --”
“Hush,” John told her.
John was sitting at a table in his quarters with his chair tilted back and his feet propped on the table, listening to his mother’s voice on one of the old tapes she’d recorded for him before he was born, while he thought about Kyle Reese. He was planning an attack on Skynet and this was the one, he could feel it. It was time. He would lead the assault that would cripple Skynet’s defenses and Skynet, the great, resourceful bitch that she was, would send one of her soldiers after his mother to undo what he had done.
Someone would have to follow the metal creature back. Someone would have to go, to protect her because she had to live. In 1984, Sarah Connor was just a nineteen year old waitress working at Big Jeff’s family restaurant. She was nobody. She was happy. If someone didn’t go back to save her, she would die like a bug under the Terminator’s heavy foot.
That someone could only be Kyle Reese. It hadn’t happened for him yet, but it had already happened. Because John was sitting there now, his mother’s voice reciting to him words he had engraved forever in his mind; Should I tell you about your father? That's a tough one. Will it change your decision to send him here... knowing? But if you don't send Kyle, you could never be. God, you can go crazy thinking about all this… Because John was sitting there now, it could only be Kyle Reese. It could only ever be Kyle and he‘d known that from the first.
He would die. He would conceive John with Sarah Connor, and then he would die defending her and yes, it was something that could drive anyone crazy. It was in his hands; his own birth and his father’s death. It was playing God, but with a marked deck, and what people never said about playing God was how it wasn’t fun at all because there were so many consequences.
The way John figured it, people never said that because people weren’t typically asked to step in for God. John sometimes still envied such people. When knowing the consequences of his actions before he committed them still could not change his mind, and every time he looked at Derek all he saw was blood staining the floor of a strange house, then he envied them. Which was most of the time.
John rolled himself a cigarette and lit it with a match as the tape came to the end and kicked off. When he looked up, Cameron was standing in the open doorway watching him.
“What is it?” John asked, sitting up.
“The crew of the USS Jimmy Carter has returned,” Cameron said.
“The crew?” John said. He started to get up, then sat back down and was still, thinking.
The mission had been unsuccessful. That made a kind of sense. He knew who was on that ship and this had to be the moment when Jesse Flores’s mind and heart changed. There would be such doubt in her and rage and once again, he was faced with playing God because he would not stop her. Even knowing what she would do, he would not stop her from doing it. She would go back, she would try to turn him against Cameron, she would kill Riley Dawson, who was really the first girl he’d ever loved and he had a small window of opportunity where he could stop that all from happening right now, in this moment.
“Go speak to her for me,” John told Cameron. “Find out what happened and report back.”
“Which one am I to speak to?” Cameron asked.
“Commander Jesse Flores,” John said. “I can’t do it, you have to do it for me. Find out what happened and ask her about the box, about the T-1001.” If I do it, I will not be able to stop myself from stopping her, he thought.
Cameron started to leave, but John called her back. “Wait.”
She paused and merely looked at him. “Is there something else?”
“When you talk to her… tell her…” John hesitated. He was not supposed to know these things, but he knew them and in spite of everything, he was not God, he was human. “Tell her, say, ‘I’m sorry for your loss.’”
Cameron seemed to think about this, then she said, “I will give her your message.”
John nodded and put his cigarette back in his mouth as he watched her go. It would have to be enough. He hoped to God, the real one whose existence he usually found to be doubtful at best, that the T-1001 had sent his crew back with a yes this time.
They could all use a yes right about now.
The tapes were locked away out of sight and John was pacing the floor when Derek knocked at his door late that night. He was talking to himself under his breath, making plans but also telling himself that it would work, that he had to do it this way, that he knew how it happened so of course he would succeed, he couldn’t fail. He broke off mid-sentence at the sound of the knock and looked up.
There were really only two people who ever dared come to his door so late at night and Cameron did not knock. “Come in,” he said.
Derek opened the door and looked around like he expected to find John with company. Probably with Cameron, who he had never liked or trusted. John couldn’t blame him. He knew that Derek was wrong, but he still didn’t blame him for that.
“You’re still awake,” Derek said.
John dragged a hand through his hair and gave him a rueful smile. “So it would appear,” he said. “It’s nothing important. Don’t worry about it.”
Derek raised his eyebrows at that, clearly disbelieving, but he shrugged. “Do you want company or should I leave you to it?”
John scratched the side of his neck and paced away from him a little, then sighed and turned back. “You can stay,” he said.
Derek smiled faintly and put a hand out to touch him, his fingers cupping his jaw, his thumb lightly tracing John’s bottom lip. There was a little scar there in the corner of his mouth and when he rubbed over that, John opened his mouth and held the tip of his thumb in his teeth.
“So what is it?” Derek asked, moving in against him. “What are you pacing a trench in the floor for?”
“It’s nothing,” John said. “Just a mission. An important one, but just a mission.”
Derek’s eyes called him a liar, but he didn’t say it aloud. He leaned in and kissed John and John opened his mouth to him easily, kissing him back. There was desire in it, always there was desire, but there was a growing sense of sadness to it, too. A sadness that had followed beside that desire from the very beginning. From the moment Derek met him for the first time and John was reunited with him after so many years. It was the knowledge in the back of his mind, a nagging, burning little whisper of a voice reminding him that he could have this, that he better take it now, because he was soon to lose it. He had seen Derek shot down like a dog right before his eyes and whenever he looked at him, he saw it again. Derek on the floor with a hole in his head and a puddle of blood redder than it had any right to be spreading around him.
Like everyone else, Derek would die for him and John would let it happen. He had to. But not yet. Soon, though, but not yet.
John backed up and sat down on the side of his bed to unlace his boots and take them off. Derek stood there beside it looking down at him for a minute, then sat beside him and did the same. When they were done, they both sat there quietly for a little while.
John sat forward with his elbows on his thighs and turned his head to look at Derek, watching him through his lashes. “What is it?” he asked.
It had been a long time, this thing between them, longer even for John than Derek could yet imagine. He knew all of Derek’s different ways of being quiet and something was troubling him. John could guess at what, but there were so many things to be troubled about these days, it was better just to ask.
“Nothing,” Derek said automatically, not looking back at him.
“Bullshit, nothing,” John said. “What?”
Derek still hesitated, but then he sighed and looked down at John. His eyes were worried, just like John knew they would be. Worried under that familiar coolness that he always found there, under the damaged cracks of his breaking mind, under the desire to reach out and touch that had not diminished with it, there was real concern and fear.
“It’s that machine,” Derek finally said.
John nodded. “What about her?”
“She… Fuck, John, she looks just like her,” Derek said. “Like Allison. Don’t you know what that means?”
“Yes,” John said, calm in the face of his outburst. “It means that in all likelihood, Allison is dead. It means the machine was sent to infiltrate our camp and take her place at my side.”
“Then what the hell is she doing here?” Derek demanded. “Why haven’t you destroyed her?”
John’s eyes narrowed on him as he thought. What to tell and what not to tell? Nothing, he decided. That was best. “She is more useful to me as she is now,” he said. “She’s been reprogrammed, she’s no threat to me.”
“Maybe that’s what they wanted all along,” Derek said. “Maybe you just think that and she‘s exactly where she‘s supposed to be.”
“Maybe a lot of things, Derek,” John said dismissively. He sat up and pulled his shirt off. “Now, if you want to stay, take your clothes off. Otherwise, we’re done with this conversation and you can go.”
Derek watched him with a frown, then finally got up and threw his coat off and yanked his shirt off over his head. He grumbled curses under his breath as he did it, but he undressed and didn’t say anything more about it. The bed groaned under their combined weight when Derek dropped to his knees on the mattress. He crawled up it, over John and John smiled at him gently and stroked his fingers into the fine hairs at the back of his neck, petting him.
“You can be an asshole sometimes, you know that, Connor?” Derek whispered to him.
John grinned and pulled him down close. “Yes, I know. It‘s one of the many hazards of the job,” he said, breath warm between them for a moment before he kissed him.
Derek took John’s face in his hands, his long fingers slipping behind his ears and into his hair as he pushed the kiss deeper, just enough that his teeth pressed John’s bottom lip into his own teeth and pinched. John caught his aggression, the urgency and need of it passing through him like Derek’s body pressing him into the tick mattress had injected him with it. He pushed back, scraping him with his teeth as he kissed back so that when they broke apart, panting and grabbing for each other, Derek hissed out a pained breath and ran his tongue over his bottom lip where John had made it lightly bleed. Derek made a soft growling sound in his throat at the taste of his own blood and shook his head back. His bright eyes were sharp and assessing as he dragged them over John’s body there stretched out beneath him.
John watched him back and cocked his head a little, eyebrows raised in question. “Derek?” he said.
Derek had his hand on John’s chest and let his palm slide down, over his belly, watching him. His lips slowly curved in a knowing little smile, an expression that could easily have been mean--John had seen it on his face at other times and thought so--but his hands on him were gentle in contrast.
John ran one hand up Derek’s arm, along his tattooed skin to his shoulder. “Something?” he asked.
“Yeah,” Derek said, but that was all.
Derek ducked his head close enough to him that John’s lips parted in expectation of a kiss, but he didn’t kiss him. He seized John’s hips in his hands and turned him over on his stomach. The sudden action made John tense and instantly start to whip back around, but Derek caught his shoulder to make him still and moved up against his back, a low rumble of laughter in his throat at John’s tense and quivering immediate reaction to fight him, even now. It was instinctive, they both knew that, and stemmed from the abrupt and unexpected way Derek had flipped him rather than any real desire to get away. Derek stroked his hands along John’s sides, fingers lingering on the hills and valleys of scar tissue in his soft, ravaged skin, and he didn’t back down. He just rested against him and touched him until the familiarity of Derek’s body and the smell of him made John gradually relax back into the slight dip in the mattress where they lay.
Derek smelled like gun oil and dirt. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell at all, it was oddly comforting on him, scents that bespoke of battles and hardship. Smells that told John, who knew them well, what Derek had been doing and where he had walked all day. When Derek reached over his shoulder and stroked his fingers along the soft, vulnerable base of John’s throat, he smelled lanolin under his fingernails and breathed it in, comforted by it, by the scrape of calluses along his skin, the heavy weight of Derek’s body against him, held carefully off of him.
John turned his face into the bend of Derek’s elbow where his arm was braced on the mattress by his shoulder and smelled the light tang of day old perspiration. Derek hadn’t showered or washed before coming to him and in his sweat, John could smell the earth of their underground hallways and passages, the soft musk of fear sweat, which was different than the smell of sweat that came from exertion.
Derek had his forehead pressed to the place between John’s shoulders, his breath warm and tickling there so that his skin twitched with goosebumps. John shivered at the sensation and pressed kisses to the inside of Derek’s forearm as Derek ran one of his hands down John’s side, along his waist and over his hip to feel with his fingers in the crack of his ass. John didn’t tense now, didn’t push him away or even react other than to deliberately relax even more, eyes cast over his own shoulder trying to watch, though he couldn’t see past the broad expanse of Derek’s shoulder and chest. Derek noticed him looking and leaned over him to nuzzle the side of his neck and nip behind his ear.
“You alright?” Derek asked him.
John made a low, pleased sound of agreement in his throat and tilted his hips back, pushing his ass up so that he rocked back against Derek’s body. Derek’s cock rubbed along the crack of his ass and Derek cursed under his breath, but he didn’t push John back down flat on the bed either. He pressed the tips of his first two fingers inside him and waited a beat for John to know and be ready for it, then pushed them inside him, deep and right to the palm.
“How about now?” Derek said, whispering it against the back of John’s ear.
John panted and reached back to pull at him, forcing Derek against him. “I’m good, Derek. I’m fine.”
Derek twisted his fingers inside him and hooked the tips, pressing with them as he stroked with them inside of John’s body, searching. John rocked back into the rhythm of Derek’s hand, his own hand falling away from Derek’s hip to clutch the edge of the mattress. When Derek’s fingertips rubbed over his prostate, John gasped, then made a moaning sound of protest when Derek took them away.
When Derek spread his fingers, stretching him with sharp, quick scissoring motions that made soft pain replace the lingering effects of what had been almost pleasure, John turned his head again to lightly bite Derek’s arm. Derek just laughed softly and leaned up to bite the back of John’s shoulder in retaliation. “In a minute, Connor. Don’t be so impatient,” he murmured.
He added a third finger, twisted them inside him and John’s mouth fell open. Derek held his weight off of John with his forearm on the mattress beside John’s shoulder and as he fingered him open, he ducked his head to lick and nip at the smooth, sensitive plane of skin between his shoulder blades. There was a tattoo there, done a long time ago by an artist in Los Angeles before Judgment Day ever happened, when Sarah Connor was still alive and John was just a kid. Words like a steady hand had slashed them with black paint into his flesh: No Fate.
It was the only tattoo on John’s body, but far from the only imperfection. Derek wondered about it and John knew that he wondered about it, but he didn’t ask and John would never tell. It was just one of those things. One of those things that he would learn the answer to on his own one day. If they all played their cards right, if they all did their part and got it right somewhere along the way, he would never need to know. Not about the tattoo or any of it.
Times like this, his mouth often lingered there and John thought it was because it was familiar. It was an anchor he could latch onto. Something that was John’s like the smell of gun oil and deep root soil was Derek’s. Derek had ink under his skin everywhere he looked and it was pretty to look at, but not special. There was a scar at the base of his throat, just a tiny one that glinted when the light was right, that Kyle had put there when his knife slipped as they were sparring about two years earlier. When he had John on his back, John would sometimes lick it, feel it with his tongue. He remembered it from his late childhood and that scar was Derek’s like the words on John’s back were his. The tattoo, but the words.
As Derek kissed and licked there, over to his shoulder, along the slope of his neck, John’s heart began to beat faster, the strokes of Derek’s fingers within him arousing him more than hurting now. When he withdrew them, John made a soft, involuntary moaning sound in his throat and he could feel Derek’s smile against the back of his neck as he shifted behind him. He sat back and John started to get up on his knees, only to have Derek put a hand in the middle of his back and hold him down.
“Stay,” Derek said.
John stilled under his hand. “Alright. Derek?”
Derek slipped his hands beneath him and lifted his hips, bringing John to his knees a little, then coaxed John‘s thighs apart with his own. “Hmm?”
John huffed out a breath and rested his forehead on the edge of the mattress. “Hurry up.”
Derek held John’s hips and pushed once, teasingly against his ass. “You want this to feel good or you want it to hurt?”
John tossed his head to throw his hair out of his eyes and look at Derek over his shoulder. Derek was stretched out over him and his face was close to John’s shoulder so that their eyes met. “I want it to feel good,” he told him. He rocked back and pressed a quick kiss to Derek’s mouth. “And I want you to hurry.”
Derek smirked at him. “Yeah, well…”
He started to push his cock in and John dropped his head back down on the bed with a sigh. Derek went slow, pressing steadily deeper, until he was all the way in and his hips were right up against John’s ass. He was breathing a little hard by then, John’s ass tight around his cock and all of his self-control being used to not hurry no matter what John said. That wasn’t how he meant it and Derek knew that, knew that if he just took, just fucked him, it would only hurt and John would fight him off then. He stayed like that, deep inside with John relaxed on the bed under him, until John rolled his hips back and ground against him, encouraging him. Only then did he move, and still carefully.
Derek shifted over him to brace his weight on his hands on the bed by John’s shoulders and thrust into him, long, deep strokes with his lower body pushing John down into the bed as he fucked him. He lowered his head to nuzzle into John’s hair by his ear and kiss him, still holding his upper body slightly off of him and John was completely aware of the kind of strength it took for Derek to be able to do that. He could turn his head and see the scarred skin of Derek’s arms sliding over bunching, flexing muscles as he moved and it was a beautiful thing. He could time the rhythm of it all in that, how the muscles in his arms tightened just before the inward thrust, and John watched it as he caught that rhythm, rolling his hips back to grind into Derek’s thrusts and keep up with him.
There was one electric light on in the room, a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling over John’s table across the room that cast a yellowish light over them both. It made their shadows longer, mutated and stretched them up the wall so that they were hardly human. They flowed over the walls and the floor as they moved and John watched them over Derek’s flexing arm as the ache of it became instinctive mating urgency and finally grew to pleasure that built in his belly until some of it started to leak out and reach up his spine, down to his fingers, into the back of his throat where he could taste the pounding beat of his heart.
Everything felt too warm, too heavy, like John was slowly being smothered by the thickness of the air. His breath hitched and he dug his fingers into the side of the mattress, shaking with tension as pleasure grew unbearably inside him. Derek’s breath was on his shoulder and in his ear, the warm puff of it making the sweat on John’s back cold until he shook from it, shivers following the path of his breathing up John’s neck like fingers. Derek licked him, licked at the sweat sliding in a tickle down from his hair, and bit lightly at his shoulder, his thrusts getting harder, quicker as he threw his weight behind them.
John cried out as Derek became rougher and let go of the mattress with one hand to bite down on his knuckles, pushing the sounds back. They still rose in his throat, became moans and low groans, and he knew that Derek liked it because when John was younger--much, much too young for him--Derek had always liked it. Derek would like it from the start with John, who would not have the kind of control then that he had now, so he knew. If the walls of his rooms were not side by side with the walls of so many other people who might hear it, if it wouldn’t undermine his authority for them to know, or cause his men to panic thinking John was being attacked instead of fucked, he wouldn’t have cared. He would have given him those sounds again gladly as he had then.
Derek came and ground his hips down on John, rolling into him and pressing him down into the bed as the pleasure of his orgasm made him tense and shiver. John moaned around the knuckles of his fisted hand at the sensation, then bit down when Derek drew back and picked up his hard, thrusting pace again, fucking him through it. The slickness of his come made it easier and smoother, helped Derek to move in and out of his body that much quicker.
In his pleasure, John bit down so savagely on his fingers that he cracked his knuckles open under his teeth and made them bleed. When he came, his orgasm was like a hard fist to the stomach and John bucked, shuddering and gripping the edge of the mattress with fingers like claws as he pushed his face into the bunched up covers to muffle it as he shouted. Derek didn’t stop immediately, he rode John’s orgasm out to the last shudders and shocks, drawing moans and soft whimpers from his throat as he came down from it and went lax on the bed.
“Enough. God, it’s enough, Derek,” John said breathlessly, reaching back to push at him a little. “Stop.”
Derek dropped a quick, biting kiss to his shoulder with a laugh and rolled off of him. He lay on his back with one arm up over his eyes as his heaving breath evened out. “I think Kyle knows,” he said.
John turned his head on the bed and studied him through half open eyes, one brow inching up. “What do you think Kyle knows?”
“About this,” Derek said simply. “I didn’t tell him.”
“You don’t have to. It’s been years. Kyle’s an observant man. If he were not, he’d be long dead,” John said. “It’s possible he knows. In fact, I’d be a little surprised if he didn’t. Does that matter?”
“No,” Derek said. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
John closed his eyes with a sigh. “Well… unless you’re also fucking your brother on the side, I don’t see how it’s any of his business.”
Derek choked out a laugh at that and John smiled faintly, amused by the conversation. Amused by how much more screwed up the whole thing was than just Derek fucking John Connor or the idea of Derek fucking his own brother. Sometimes John thought Kyle suspected the rest, and that would have mattered, for a lot of reasons. Sometimes Kyle looked at John with a certain kind of frown, a question in his eyes that he never asked, and John was sure that he suspected.
However, no matter what Kyle did or did not suspect, it had very little to do with Derek. He suspected because a long time ago, right after they had escaped the work camp together, John had given Kyle a photograph of his mother taken somewhere near the Mexican border before John was born. Kyle carried it with him everywhere, for good luck, he said. So if Kyle suspected anything at all about who John really was to him and his brother Derek, no matter how insane he might believe it, he suspected it because Kyle Reese had never been with a woman in his life. He was in love with Sarah Connor and maybe he didn’t yet know it, but he had saved himself for her.
“Forget about it,” John said. “It is not worth dwelling on.”
“Oh, yeah?” Derek said. He turned his head on the bed, then rolled onto his stomach, which put him close to John’s side. “Isn’t it?”
John made an impatient sound in his throat and cracked one eye open to regard him with tired annoyance. “Will it hurt your feelings if I say again that it’s not?”
Derek smirked at him and shook his head imperceptibly. “Have I told you recently how much of a complete bastard you can be?” he muttered.
John smiled at him and rocked gently to the side, bumping Derek’s shoulder with his own in an affectionate way. “No more than you,” he said. “You can be an incredible bastard when you’ve a mind to be, Derek Reese. But you misunderstand me. It is Kyle’s thoughts that are not worth dwelling on.”
“Ah. Yeah, I don’t know what he’s really thinking half of the time anyway,” Derek said.
“You don’t even speak his language,” John said with a snort.
“And you do?” Derek said.
John thought about it for a minute, then just shrugged. “Sometimes,” he said. “I can fake the accent, anyway.”
Derek made an amused sound in his throat and put his head down on his folded arms. He watched John laying there beside him for a little while and John could feel his gaze like a hand petting his skin. Then he closed them and a few minutes later he was asleep, his breathing deep and even.
When he was asleep, John got up. He leaned over and placed a light kiss on Derek’s shoulder before sliding out of the bed, then went to wash and dress himself. He left Derek a gun on the bed close to hand, took a pistol of his own and tucked it into the back of his trousers, and left him to sleep. He had fallen asleep quickly and John knew he needed the rest. John himself could not sleep, but that was often the case. His mind, his thoughts, his memories kept him awake and restless. Derek though… Derek would need all the sleep he could get for the days ahead.
John walked down the halls of the underground camp and went mostly unnoticed and unrecognized by the people there. These were families trying to make a meal out of Plumpy'nut and the broth of meat that had been eaten the week before. They were huddled around trashcan and pit fires and some had skin just as filthy as their clothes. Since such things as fashion magazines and South Beach Diets disappeared right along with Laundromats and Tide with Bleach, since the world exploded and over four billion people were wiped out of existence in a blink, all of them having families and histories and generations of relatives throughout time that didn’t even know what a fractal was and thought Skynet sounded like something you used when you went to the park to catch butterflies… since all of that disappeared, bathing and washing had fallen pretty low on most peoples’ list of priorities. They wanted to live and every single day they worried they were going to die. Some of them were not wrong to worry about that. So they were dirty and hungry and they didn’t know John Connor from Adam when he walked right by them.
John was fine with that. He could walk among them without being pawed or praised or, in some cases, worshipped, and it made his job a lot easier. The soldiers knew him of course, but they were under orders not to bring unnecessary attention to his presence when he was near civilians. Mostly they didn’t, though it had happened in the past more than once when something went down, when something needed his attention, when John had to declare himself by taking command of a bad situation. But when that happened, people were more concerned about running away and hiding from the machines than looking at the face of John Connor.
He was standing against a wall with his arms crossed and his shoulders hunched, watching people pass by and go about their business eating what they had and bedding down for the night when Cameron approached him. She stood there looking at him for a minute and he looked calmly back. Carefully, mimicking his posture, Cameron leaned against the wall beside him.
John grinned and ducked his head to suppress a laugh. “Hello,” he said.
“Hello,” Cameron said. “I spoke to Commander Jesse Flores. I am to tell you that the metal monster said no.”
John sighed, all humor leaving him. “That’s unfortunate.”
Cameron didn’t have anything to say to that, but she was still thinking about something. Eventually, she let him know what. “She was very upset.”
“She lost a child,” John said. “She blames me.”
“Yes,” Cameron said. “It’s strange, but she also seems to blame me.”
“Yes,” John said.
Cameron looked at him with her head tilted a little, an expression of almost bird-like curiosity on her face. “Why?”
“Because you’re a machine,” John said. “Because she believes that I trust you more than I trust people and that this is a failing of mine. The child in her womb died while she was on a mission involving machines.”
“I don’t understand,” Cameron said.
John sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “She blames you because she blames me,” he said. “Because you speak for me and because I don’t tell them everything that I tell the machines in my command. She’s never even met me and if I had my way, she never would. Some people wonder if I’m doing the right thing. They wonder if I know what I’m doing or if I’m delivering them into the hands of their enemies. You make them wonder even more.”
“Because you trust me,” Cameron said.
John smiled humorlessly. “Oh, yes, I do.”
“More than you trust people?” Cameron asked.
John glanced at her. “Are you fishing for a compliment of some kind?”
“That would be incredibly human of me, John,” Cameron said. “No.”
“Except sometimes you lie, so maybe yes,” John said. He was quiet for a little while, thinking, and he took a rolled cigarette from the pocket of his jacket and lit it before he answered her. “Yes. I trust you more than I trust people. Not all machines. Just you.”
“Why?” Cameron asked. “You only recently acquired me and reprogrammed me. I could be defective.”
John chuffed a soft laugh, huffing out smoke on a stuttering exhale. “I know you better than you think,” he said. “To use a cliché, I know you better than you know yourself.”
“Because you knew Allison Young,” Cameron said. “You have feelings for the form I was made in because I was made to emulate Allison Young.”
“Actually, you’ve got that all backward,” John said. He had cared only a little for Allison herself, but he had known one day that she would be replaced, so he had chosen her for himself and waited for the day she didn‘t come back, but Cameron did.
Cameron stared at him as she processed what he said and deciphered it. Finally, she said, “You have feelings for me.”
“Yes,” John admitted.
“Not because you had feelings for Allison Young,” Cameron said.
“No,” John said. He had once had feelings for Allison Young because she reminded him so intensely of Cameron. He had known from the first time he saw her that Cameron would one day kill her. “Does that seem strange to you?”
“Yes,” Cameron said instantly.
John flicked his cigarette to the floor and crushed it out under his foot. “It won’t.”
Cameron thought about this for a few minutes. After a while, she said, “John, I am not programmed to reciprocate human emotions and attachments.”
John sniffed and pushed himself away from the wall. “You will,” he said.
Cameron watched him go and when he was at the end of the hall where he would turn to go back to his rooms, she called, “Goodnight, John!”
John smiled fondly back and her and waved, then slipped through the door that would take him back to his room and Derek, who was hopefully still sleeping and had not had a nightmare and shot out the light bulb. It would not be the first time, but John didn’t think he had anymore light bulbs at the moment, either.
They had peace and quiet for a few days, but this served to only make the civilians more nervous and the soldiers more paranoid than ever rather than less. No one trusted peace much. They had seen it erupt into unimaginable ruin far too many times to count on it. Peace always ended and it usually heralded great chaos, like the silent eye of a storm.
John was going over the plans he was working on for a mission to take the base at Topanga Canyon and had just stood up to lean over the table where he had a hand-drawn map rolled out and tacked down with knives, bristling with colored sewing pins when the rumble of a centaur patrol overhead made the walls rattle. Dirt peppered down from the ceiling and John cast his eyes up, listening, his heart falling like a broken elevator to the pit of his stomach.
On the table by his hand, the radio crackled. “Sir, there’s something going on overhead. Sounds like HK’s.”
John picked up the radio. “I hear them. Secure the civilians and…” John closed his eyes and swallowed, then continued with his voice as calm as he could make it. “Send Kyle and Derek Reese, Billy Wisher and--”
“Send the Horsemen, yes sir. Will do.”
“The Horsemen, yes,” John said. He had always kind of hated the name that had fallen on Derek’s unit, but then he knew them all so well. Better, as he had told Cameron, than they knew themselves. “Send them topside to have a look at things. When Kyle returns, I want to see him.”
“Just Kyle, sir?”
Kyle was the only one who would return, at least for now. John let out a calming breath and said, “Yes. Just Kyle.”
He dropped the radio on the table and stood there with his head down for a long time. He didn’t know how long, but eventually Cameron came into the room and stood on the other side of the table, looking at him.
“My favorite book when I was a kid was The Wizard of Oz by Frank L. Baum,” John told her without moving from his bent over position. “When I was little, my mother would read it to me over and over. Always in Spanish. That was before they locked her up. I’ll always remember that. It was one of my favorite things, the way she did that. She was almost like a normal mother then.”
“Why are you telling me this?” Cameron asked.
John lifted his head and looked at her, then pushed himself upright from the table. “Because very soon, you’re going to need to know it,” he said. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked back down at the map. “Come around here and tell me what you think of this.”
And John knew. When he was only a boy, Derek had driven it home to him like a clean, sharp knife to the heart and he had never forgotten it.
“You can’t do what you do and expect everyone to agree… or love you,” he had said. “We follow. We rise or fall on your shoulders. Humanity rises or falls. But we’re always watching.”
“For me to make a mistake?” John had asked him.
Derek had just looked at him then and now, with all the years between that day and where he stood, so many years into the future of that day, John still remembered that look. He didn’t know what it meant then and could not have guessed, but he knew now. “For you to be human,” Derek had said, and maybe in the future John, John as he was in 2027, wasn’t human enough to suit him, but back then, John had been painfully human. More John Baum than John Connor and Derek, his Derek, had been so lost.
So John looked, all the time, for something he knew to be wrong. He wanted to be wrong more than anything in the world because one thing he knows that’s wrong was all it took to change the future. And it was changing. Little things. Small enough that anyone could think they didn’t matter, but John knew differently. Change one little thing and everything can change. That was the law, in chemistry or physics, some subject he had skipped over in school by handing his homework off to Cameron. But it was true. Change one thing, some little thing so far back and so small that he didn’t even remember what it was now and Jesse Flores meets Derek Reese six months earlier. The USS Jimmy Carter goes on its mission earlier and instead of being on the other side of the world, she’s right there with John’s men at the Battle of Topanga Canyon.
When John went with Cameron and a few others into the base, he didn’t want to take Jesse Flores with him. He wanted to leave her up top with the rest, but he didn’t because what he wanted and what had to be done were two completely opposite things. Much as he wanted and needed to change the future, some pieces of the past had to remain constant. Jesse Flores was one of those things. Derek, unfortunately, was another. Kyle… Well, Kyle was the most important of all.
He tried not to think about it in terms related to sacrifice but it never really helped.
“So that’s a time machine?” Kyle asked as they all stood staring in at it.
They had forced their way through the thick vault-like doors and were standing in a large chamber the size of a high school auditorium. At the center of the room, in the floor, there was a wide circular hole, wide enough that John or Kyle or any of them could have lay down in the middle of it and stretched their arms out and still never touched the edge. Inside the hole were three massive rings, suspended there by a powerful magnetic field. It was amazing and awe-inspiring, a miraculous and wondrous structure, but terrible. A great weapon in the hands of whoever controlled it. The most direct link with the past and the future: time travel.
John could understand the skepticism in Kyle’s voice. It didn’t look anything at all like a time machine. “In a way. It’s actually a time displacement device,” he said. “TDE, if you like that better. Time Displacement Equipment.”
Kyle looked at him and didn’t ask John how he knew that, but John could see the question there in his eyes anyway. “What does that mean, exactly?” he asked.
“It will allow living tissue and mimetic polyalloy to be sent backward and forward in time,” Cameron said on John’s other side.
Behind him, John could feel Jesse Flores and the handful of other soldiers he had brought with him listening to everything they said. They were staring and it was the first time in a while that Jesse had her eyes fixed on something that was not the irritating tickling place between John’s shoulder blades. When Cameron explained the machine, in that matter-of-fact way she had, they all looked between her and the device. They believed her. She would not lie about such a thing, not when there was the faintest touch of something like pride in her voice as she explained its purpose.
John smiled faintly and nodded. “Yes.”
“And you want me to… go through it?” Kyle asked, his voice dropping to a whisper. He wasn’t afraid of much, but John could tell the device scared Kyle. It scared the hell out of him. “How do we even know it works?”
“It works,” John said.
“You don’t know that,” Kyle said. “I could end up liquefied or… something.”
Cameron looked at the TDE and tilted her head. She was scanning it. “It is fully functional,” she said after a few seconds.
Kyle stared at her and let out a deep breath. He looked at John. “Why?” he said. “John… Connor… Why me?”
John looked right back at him and smiled that faint smile of his again. That smile, Derek could have told Kyle, sometimes lied. Sometimes it lied a lot. Worse: sometimes it told the unvarnished truth. “Because it has to be you,” John said. “It always had to be you.”
Kyle didn’t say anything for a while. Finally, he drew in a breath and let it out shakily. “What’s the mission?” he asked.
“Travel back to 1984 and save the life of Sarah Connor,” John said.
Kyle’s eyes widened and his mouth fell open in surprise. “What?”
“They have already sent a machine back, just before we seized control, and his mission is to find Sarah Connor in 1984 and kill her before I am born,” John said. He said it all with such a straight face, too. His heart hardly skipped a beat. “You know what would happen if the machine were to succeed?”
Kyle couldn’t even imagine it, but what he could imagine was enough. “They win,” he said.
John smiled humorlessly. “Yes.”
“But how…?” Kyle stared at the machine and he was afraid. Part of that fear was just the natural fear that came to a logical mind when confronted by the reality of time travel, but more than that, it was the fear Kyle and others like him had developed into a kind of heightened, instinctive awareness of all things mechanical. He could never trust a machine and here John was asking him to. “How does it work?”
John said nothing for a while, then finally confessed, “I don’t really know.”
“But then how…? I mean, how do I get back?” Kyle asked.
“You don’t,” Cameron said.
Her voice startled him and Kyle jumped a little. Then he glared at her. “What do you mean, ‘you don’t’?”
Cameron cocked her head and regarded him with her uncomfortable, avian-like curiosity. “You can never come back,” she said. “The technology does not exist in the year 1984.”
Kyle looked at John, hoping for him to contradict her, but John didn’t. “The only way to return would be to construct another device, but in 1984, the technology doesn’t exist, she’s right. You can’t take it with you to build it yourself because it won’t travel unless it‘s surrounded by living tissue,” John said. “I know it’s a lot to ask. I know. But I have to ask it anyway because I need you. You have to go and you can’t come back if you do. But she will die without you.”
John met his eyes then and Kyle was afraid, but John knew his heart. Kyle could not have believed how well John knew his heart. John cursed himself for a manipulative son of a bitch, but he still drove the dagger home and twisted it in anyway. “Sarah Connor needs you. She will die if you don’t save her.”
Kyle licked his chapped lips nervously in thought and said nothing for a few minutes. He didn’t have to say anything, though. John had known for a long time that Kyle was in love with his mother. When he gave Kyle that photograph, he had planted those seeds. Kyle would go now, he only had to realize it himself.
In only a couple of minutes, he did.
“I have to go,” Kyle whispered. He was speaking partly to himself, but he turned his head and looked at first Cameron, then John and said it again. “I have to go.”
Behind them, the other soldiers who had come with them, the human ones, shifted on their feet uneasily. John heard it and was aware of their positions and the sense of anxiety and confusion rising among them. They could hear most of what was being said and had undoubtedly gathered the gist of the conversation.
“You don’t approve?” John asked them, raising his voice to carry clearly to them without turning to face them.
He knew where each one stood, had committed the room to memory and marked their positions as they had entered the chamber and fallen into their usual defensive places at his back. They were armed and they were well-trained, but he could still kill them all and walk away before they had made up their minds to openly defy him. They would hesitate; John would not.
It was Jesse Flores who finally answered him, and he smiled because if asked to guess, he would have guessed her. “Sir, it’s just…” She cleared her throat and tried again, this time more confidently. “Someone should go with him. The mission you’re talking about, that’s more than a one-man op.”
John turned then, a quick, practiced about-face that made them all tense expectantly. He smirked. “Is it?” he asked, eying her with keen interest as he paced back to them.
She tilted her head back in what alone would have been a defiant gesture, but she stared straight ahead and didn’t meet his eyes, which ruined it. John decided in that moment, in spite of all he knew that she would do, that he liked Commander Jesse Flores. Just a little. It made sense, he supposed. After all, he did share a man with her.
“Commander Flores, why is it more than a one-man op?” John asked her, pacing away. Of course he knew. It was a deceptively stupid question.
“Because he could die,” she said, sounding surprised herself. “Kyle Reese, he could die. If… If that were to happen, he would fail.”
It would happen, but he would not fail.
John stood there, knowing that she was right, knowing everything that would lead Kyle to his death, with every ability to prevent it from happening that way again right there before him. He could choose differently this time and send Jesse back to 1984 with him. It was what she wanted, he knew. It was what she didn’t quite dare ask him for. If he did, Kyle might not die, Jesse might not die, and everything that she would do could be undone right now. He could even send Cameron, which would lessen the chance of failure and death even more. A thousand little possible consequences of this alternate course of action flitted through his mind, clashed with the past as he had lived it, and formed a single, unshakable conclusion.
I can’t change this, John thought. God help me, but I can’t undo it or all might be lost anyway. It‘s a chance I can‘t take. “Kyle will go,” John said. “Alone. And you will not fail me, will you?”
Kyle’s jaw clenched and he unconsciously straightened his spine and squared his shoulders. “No, sir. I will not fail.”
“No, you won’t,” John assured him. He patted Kyle on the back of the shoulder affectionately and his heart broke a little when Kyle smiled at him, pleased. “Alright, in 1984, Sarah Connor is a waitress living and working in Los Angeles, California. She is nineteen years old, she’s enrolled in college courses, and she shares a two-story apartment in the Palm District with a roommate. The machine that is after her is an older model, a Series 800 Model 101 Infiltrator.”
“Why would they send an obsolete model?” Kyle asked.
“I wouldn‘t know,” John said. “Except if I had to hazard a guess, I would say they didn’t think that the termination of a single, lonely, young woman, untrained in any form of combat or survival whatsoever, worth wasting precious resources on. I am putting every hope in the world on them being wrong, Kyle.”
Kyle swallowed, then nodded shortly. “I understand.”
You haven’t a clue, John thought. “Good. Now, let’s go in there and get you ready. Cameron?”
“Yes, John?” she said.
“We’re going to need your help,” John said.
“Of course,” she said, and followed them into the inner chamber.
“He is very brave,” Cameron said beside him.
They were standing again outside of the TDE chamber and John had his hands at the small of his back, military fashion with one hand gripping the other wrist. He was staring in at it, dark now and charged down, but waiting. It would not remain dark for long, he knew.
“Who is?” he asked.
“Kyle Reese,” Cameron said.
John chuffed a soft, sad laugh and turned his head to look at her. “They are always brave,” he said. “They are always brave and they always die.”
She blinked at him. “That is what makes them so brave,” she said.
“Yeah,” John said dismissively. “I know.”
He stood there for a minute longer, then turned and headed back out, back the way they had come in after they fought their way through the machines and seized the place, back to the surface. He had a radio on his belt and took it in hand as he walked, hit the button on the side to open the channel.
“Perry?” John said.
He waited and after a minute, Justin Perry responded. “Yes, sir, I’m here.”
“We’re coming up,” John said. “I need you to send some men back to the camp. Get everyone evacuated from the hold and bring them here.”
There was a longer silence this time. “Everyone?” Perry finally said. “Civilians, too?”
“Especially the civilians. Send Sumner with some men. Tell them to hurry and save as many as they can,” John said. “The machines are coming.”
“Christ,” Perry said. There was not a single hint of disbelief in his voice, just alarm and urgency. He had seen too much, been through too much with John Connor to doubt him.
Urgency was good. Urgency would get shit done.
John climbed the stairs with Cameron behind him to the surface and flung the door open as he strode outside among his men. He put the radio back on his belt and Cameron moved to fall into step beside him again.
“What’s going on, John?” she asked.
John hesitated, but he knew that in the future she knew about this. This time, things had changed just enough that Cameron wasn’t the machine who tortured it out of him, but it would be one like her he was sure. She could know this. “The men they took--”
“Derek Reese and Billy Wisher,” Cameron said.
“Yes,” John said. “They’ve been tortured. Interrogated I guess you would call it.”
“Yes,” Cameron said. “You think Derek Reese will betray your location.”
John shook his head curtly. “I know he will,” he said. “Major,” he said to Perry as they approached him. “Have they gone yet?”
“Not yet. They’re on their way,” Perry said. He eyed Cameron with unconcealed mistrust, then cast his gaze over John’s shoulder, expecting to find Kyle.
“Kyle Reese has been sent away on a mission,” John said.
Perry frowned at him. “Yes, sir.”
“Tell Sumner and the others to get everyone out that they can and then fall back,” John said. “Have the civilians brought here where they’ll be safe. He is to remain in the area with a few good men and wait.”
“For?” Perry asked.
“For Derek and the others to come back,” John said.
Perry blinked at him in surprise. “Surely you don’t think those men are still alive, Connor.”
John didn’t say anything, just looked at him until it made the other man uncomfortable and he looked away.
“Yes, sir. I’ll give them your instructions,” he said.
“Good,” John said. He glanced at Cameron and tilted his head, signaling her to go with him. “I need you to get the other machines together and go below. Clear it out and make it ready. Make it livable. I need that area we were just in closed off. Only those authorized by me will be allowed to pass. Oh, and Cameron?”
“Yes, John?” Cameron said.
“Pretty soon, probably not for a day or two yet, Commander Jesse Flores is going to break into the TDE chamber with a young blonde girl,” John said. “She will not be logged as authorized, but you will not stop her.”
Cameron looked at him and blinked. She didn’t ask John how he knew this, but he could see her calculating it anyway in that remarkable computerized brain of hers. “You want her to be authorized, but not to know that she is authorized,” she said. “Why?”
“Because that’s how it has to be,” John said tiredly. “She has a mission, too, she just doesn’t know it.”
“Who is the girl she will take with her?” Cameron asked.
John smiled and shook his head. “I can’t tell you that,” he said.
“But not because you do not know,” Cameron said.
“No,” John said. “I know. I just can’t tell you. Go now.”
She left him without protest and went to find the other reprogrammed machines. They were much more suited to that kind of work, efficient and they didn’t tire. His men on the other hand were exhausted, some of them injured, some dead. They deserved to rest and he didn’t have the heart to send them below, bleeding and filthy from battle, to haul debris and put up walls.
Already, the soldiers were erecting tents and setting up an infirmary for the wounded. They were going body to body among those on the ground, searching out the survivors, moving the dead out of the way to be disposed of later.
John watched them, then he went to one of the infirmary tents and sat with a boy who was dying and gave him water.
John stood with his men after all of the survivors had been separated from the dead and watched them pile the bodies on pyres and burn them. The cremation fires lit up the camp and some of the soldiers, desensitized to it as they were and cold in the night air, warmed their hands by the flames.
The night after the survivors came, Jesse Flores broke into the time displacement chamber with a girl and convinced a technician on duty to send them both back in time. The technician himself, a very young soldier in the Resistance, broke down and cried when he confessed what he had done. He confessed it to his commander, who relayed it to John, who executed the boy.
John wept later, but he could not have done anything else.
He locked himself in his rooms for a while after that and mourned. It was not the first time he had executed someone under his command and it certainly wasn’t the first person he had killed. That had been a long time ago. But he felt the guilt of this death more acutely than most because he had known it would happen, had allowed it to happen, and then had dealt out the harshest punishment there was for a crime he could have easily prevented and had needed the offender to commit. He had needed that young soldier to disobey his orders and ignore his own common sense and be seduced by Jesse. Without him, Jesse was stopped from going back and that could not be allowed. Jesse had to go and she had to take Riley with her. None of it could have been prevented, but it was going to take John a little while to be okay with that.
He couldn’t appear to be uncertain of his actions or in any way weak before his men though, so he hid himself away and spent that time alone perfecting his plans, outlining his courses of action, and listening to his mother’s tapes.
John had made a chess set out of spent gun shells and shrapnel and drew a chess board on the top of an old table with soot from the fire. There was a game on it and Cameron was white (lead) and John was black (brass). Cameron was out patrolling the camp perimeters with orders to bring Derek to see him when he got back, after Perry had finished with him, but that was how they played the game--just whenever they got a moment and it was their turn. It was John’s move now.
He sat at the table, his mind working on about fifty other things as he considered the board. One of the tapes was playing off to his right and he thought as he listened to it. He remembered this one particularly well. He didn’t know when his mother had made it, but it always made him think of his sixteenth birthday, which had been anything but happy. She had probably made it earlier than that, but that never really mattered. The order wasn’t important.
There had been good intentions that day, of course, on his birthday. Derek took him to the park and showed him his father, who was just a little boy playing catch. They had sex in John’s bed right before Derek took him for ice cream and John always wondered about that because Derek had known by then. He had to know or they never would have ended up in that park with Derek telling him that every time he looked at John he saw Kyle, and still Derek hadn’t hesitated to touch him. Later, Sarah sent Cameron out to get a cake and the car blew up and damaged her chip. Cameron had almost killed him that day. John had almost let her be destroyed. Sarah Connor had looked at her son and been afraid of him instead of for him for the very first time that day.
“The pride of men, of parents as well, makes us believe that anything we create, we can control. Whether from clay or from metal, it is in the nature of us to make our own monsters. Our children are alloys, all, built from our own imperfect flesh. We animate them with magic… and never truly know what they will do.”
John smiled a little to himself. He had always appreciated that sentiment, knowing as he did how she had come to believe that. That she couldn’t control him if he was ever going to become John Connor. She had always thought him too young, not ready, too vulnerable and if she had had her way, he would have been safe and sheltered all his days until the sky fell down on their heads. She had not understood, like Derek did not understand, how he loved Cameron and would always love her. He had spared her life and looked at Derek and his own mother over the barrel of a gun that day for her and even now he would do it again.
He closed his eyes and remembered his mother looking at him over the blazing light of a flare. He had been young and still stupid in many ways, but he had met her eyes and that was the first time Sarah really saw John Connor, not her son, not an extension of her own flesh, not the culmination of everything she had taught him or pulled him through. He had felt what she saw, too. There was steel in him, a great will, a well of power burning down deep in his heart, forged there by a thousand things outside of his control that would turn him into John Connor, the only hope left to mankind. He had been told such things all his life, heard it, had it drilled into him, but that was the first time he felt it. Staring through the fire at his own mother, knowing that he could have pulled the trigger if she had not backed down.
There was a tape somewhere among the others about chess, too. The goal of a chess game is total annihilation. But in war, even as the blood beats in your ears and you race after your enemy, there is the hope that saner minds than yours will stop you before you reach your target. He thought of that one often, too. How naive his mother had been sometimes to think that they still had lived in a time when such hope was possible. That John would ever be that saner mind.
John opened his eyes and moved his rook five spaces to trap the white queen.
Someone tried the door and John looked up. After a pause, there was a knock. Cameron didn’t knock. She had, in fact, broken the locking mechanism on the door a couple of times because she didn’t knock.
“Yes?” John said. He reached over on the desk beside him and hit the stop button on the radio to turn off the tape.
“It’s me,” Derek said on the other side of the door. “I was told you wanted to see me.”
John’s eyebrows shot up at that and he got up. It was very formal for Derek to phrase it quite that way. They hadn’t been formal with each other in… oh, hell, never. When they first met, or at least when Derek first met John, Derek had called him sir just like everyone else and John still let him when they were in the company of others, but when they weren’t, he had long ago told him to cut it out. Now, he sounded like a Resistance fighter just following orders to report to his commander and John could think of only a couple of reasons why.
He opened the door and stepped back for Derek to enter. Derek looked like hell, but John hadn’t expected anything else. He also wouldn’t look him in the eye and John had to resist the urge to reach out and touch him.
Derek would not welcome it now and if he were really angry, he might lash out and then John would be forced to kick his ass. He would feel bad about it, but he would still do it if Derek struck him.
In the spirit of avoiding that, John crossed the room and pulled out a chair from the desk for Derek. “Sit,” he said. “We need to talk I think.”
Derek did not sit. “What happened to Kyle?” he asked.
“Nothing happened to Kyle. He was sent on a mission,” John said. “Now, please sit down, Derek.”
“Where?” Derek asked. “No one will tell me where.”
“Well, I’m not going to tell you that either. Now sit down,” John snapped.
Derek looked up then and met his eyes and he was miserable and furious. It was all right there on his face, he wasn’t even trying to hide it. John tilted his head curiously and regarded him with cool indifference. Inside, he was anything but cool. Look at you, he thought. You would kill me now if you dared, wouldn’t you, my love? Because you don’t know where he’s gone, but you suspect I’ve killed him and you’re right. I have.
In the past, before the rise of the machines, Derek would have been diagnosed with any number of war related psychological trauma. The very least of which would have been Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, always assuming of course that there was ever a post trauma period that lasted long enough for him to start having the post traumatic kind. He would have been discharged from the military for his own safety and the safety of others, but there was no such thing anymore. Quite simply, the fight could not spare him. John couldn’t spare him.
“Derek,” John said, his voice gentling. “Please sit down. We’ll talk. Don’t you have something you need to tell me anyway?”
Derek dropped his gaze to the floor and tensed uncomfortably. After a minute of indecision, he went over to the chair and sat down. “Just promise me he’s alive,” he said.
John pulled out the chair he had been sitting in when Derek knocked and sat down in front of him. He looked right at him and he lied. “He’s alive. I promise.”
Derek made a scoffing sound in his throat and rubbed his eyes with the fingers of his right hand. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” John said.
“Sumner just… he made it sound like…”
John sighed. “Yes, I’m sure it was a very dramatic telling, but he wasn’t even there.”
“Alright,” Derek said. He had relaxed slightly. Whether he believed John or not, it didn’t seem to make a difference because he wanted to believe him. Maybe even needed to.
“Alright,” John said. “Now, quid pro quo. Isn’t there something you want to tell me?”
Derek shook his head, his eyes still downcast at the dirty floor between his feet. “I don’t know,” he said.
He was tense again. John put his hands out and cupped Derek’s face between his palms, coaxing him to raise his head. At the first touch of his fingers, Derek shifted, but he didn’t push him away. He stared off at a fixed point to John’s left and John waited for him to look at him. Derek was dirty, bruised, unshaven and lightly trembling with exhaustion and tension. He was tired, dehydrated, probably hungry and he needed a shower badly. But John knew what he had endured and he knew Derek. Derek probably didn’t even notice that he was thirsty and he would never ask for it, but what he needed more than anything was simple human contact.
Derek finally did look up and he didn’t flinch away from John’s touch, but there was a flinching expression in his eyes. He was ready for John to be angry with him and he believed that he deserved it, but he couldn’t bring himself to tell him what John already knew. It shamed him too much that he had been weak before the torture of the machines and betrayed the only thing he stood for. John knew and he didn’t blame him for it, there was no way he could have endured all that they were capable of putting him through and knowing Derek as he did, Derek had endured a great deal before he broke.
“I’m sorry,” Derek said softly. He didn’t say what for though.
“I know you are,” John said. “So am I.”
“If you have to… I’ll understand,” Derek said.
John frowned and let his thumbs lightly trace along the stubble of his beard to his chin and back. “If I have to do what?”
“Punish me for it,” Derek said. He closed his eyes and tilted his head slightly into John’s hand. “I betrayed you. People died because I… I couldn’t stand it anymore. I should have. I should have. I should have let them fucking kill me first, but I just… I broke, John. They broke me. Like it was nothing. Like it was--”
“Shh, stop,” John said. Derek was starting to babble and all it was doing was upsetting him more. “Just stop it now. There will be no punishment. This never leaves this room, Derek.”
Derek blinked his eyes open and looked back at him, confused. “Why?”
John smiled sadly and shook his head. “Because I just don’t have the heart for it,” he said. “Because I can’t bear to. Because it still would have happened if you were anyone else.”
“But I’m not anyone else,” Derek insisted. “It’s not right, John. I got people killed. I--”
“Shut up, Derek. I’m not going to kill you, so just stop,” John said.
He stood up then and Derek followed him with his eyes, alarmed and still apprehensive in spite of what John had said. John put his hand on Derek’s head and lightly ran his fingers backward through his hair. Derek let his head drop forward and rested it against John’s hip, finally relaxing again with an exhausted sigh.
“Come with me,” John said. He pulled gently at Derek’s arm and got him to stand. “Come on, lay down. When was the last time you slept?”
Derek went with him to the bed in the corner and crawled up on it after John. “I don’t know. I… How long was I gone?”
“That long?” John said. “Here, lay with me and close your eyes. You can sleep now.”
“I think so,” Derek said.
He put his arm around John’s waist when he settled against him and rested his forehead against his chest. He could hear John’s heartbeat that way and John knew he had always found it an intensely comforting sound. John put his arms around Derek’s back, held onto him and let him have that. It was little enough and there would be so much more pain in the days to come. Most of it would be John’s fault and he couldn’t take that back, but he could give Derek this and, as inadequate as it was, it was all he had.
John did have to wonder though, was it really because he didn’t have the heart to do it, or was it just maybe because he knew that he would need Derek alive for later? Was there really anything anymore, anything at all, that he couldn’t convince his heart to let him do? It was not the first time that he had been made to consider the possibility that he no longer even recognized his own ulterior motives. His own devious manipulations. They were necessary, he believed that. Every lie and betrayal was necessary. But in the course of doing what had to be done, he had become very near in nature to the evil of his enemies and he knew that, too. Was it any wonder that they all watched him, waiting for him to be human? He didn’t even know himself if he could claim membership to the race anymore after some of the necessary things he had done.
Derek’s soft, even breathing told John he was asleep and John ran his hands lightly down his back, soothing, wishing there could be another way.
“I don’t think it is morning,” Derek said. He spoke with his mouth under John’s ear and again, John shivered. “Maybe about one. It’s still dark out there anyway.”
It wasn’t dark in the room. They had both neglected to turn the overhead light off before crawling up in the bed. John could see every bruise and scrape on him. Derek watched him back for a minute before he sat back on his heels and pulled his shirt off. It was filthy and frayed and full of holes. The skin beneath it wasn’t much better. Derek had a torso of scars, every one of them from battle, even a few that had almost killed him. John put his hand out and rested his palm on Derek’s belly. The muscles tensed under his fingers, then relaxed as John slowly slid his hand up. Derek watched him touching him and didn’t say anything or move to stop him, and John wondered what he was thinking but he didn’t ask.
“Your eyelashes are ridiculous,” Derek said abruptly.
That pulled John up short and he blinked up at him. “My… what?”
“Eyelashes,” Derek said. He put one hand out to carefully run the tip of his thumb over the fan of John’s lashes.
John blinked rapidly, then pushed his hand away. “My eyelashes are ridiculous?” he repeated.
“Oh, yeah,” Derek said. “They’re about an inch long.”
John frowned at him and narrowed his eyes, suspecting he was, incredible as it seemed, teasing him. “Well, your nose is ridiculous then.”
“My nose?” Derek said. He smiled and John smiled with him, unable to help it. It was a rare thing to see Derek smile. “What’s wrong with my nose?”
“I don’t know,” John said. “It’s there and I needed a body part to pick on.”
Derek stretched out over him and lay down, propped up on his elbows. “I suppose you’d like me better without one.”
John shook his head no and put his arm around Derek’s neck to pull him down and kiss him. “No more than you’d prefer me without eyelashes,” he muttered.
Derek looked down at him and brushed his fingers, rough and calloused pads lightly scraping, over John’s features. He had an intense and focused look in his eyes that didn’t quite go with the faint little smile of his that said, We’re both idiots for this, you know.
John did know, but that had never stopped him before.
John lifted up on the bed and kissed the base of his throat, moved his mouth up to kiss over his pulse, lightly set his teeth against the tender underside of his chin. “We shouldn’t do this right now,” he said, settling back on his elbows with a sigh.
Derek raised a brow at that and put his arm down between them to hook his fingers in the front of John’s trousers. He stared into his eyes as he jerked the fly open and pulled them down John’s hips. “Why not?”
He wasn’t asking because he expected to hear an answer that would deter him, so John just looked back at him patiently and smirked as he said, “Because you need to go get something to eat and shower, probably drink about a gallon of water. You need to go take care of yourself.”
“It can wait,” Derek said. He sat back and pulled John’s pants with him down his legs. He tossed them aside and fumbled with the fly of his own jeans, gaze still fixed and unwavering on John. When he got his pants undone, he pushed them down and grabbed John around the waist, pulling him up and into his lap. “Right now I need this a lot more than I need all that other shit.”
“Fine, lay back,” John said and gently pushed at Derek’s chest.
Derek reluctantly let him go and lay on his back on the bed. He looked down his body to watch John as he knelt by his feet and worked the laces free on his boots. He took them off and tossed them one after the other over the side of the bed, then crawled up to settle himself between Derek’s legs. When he ran his hands up the crease of his thighs to his hips, Derek opened them wider, still watching him, now with his eyebrows raised in question. If John intended to fuck him, Derek would let him--he had before--but it didn’t often work out that way just because they both had their own preferences about which position they liked best and that usually wasn‘t it.
John smiled a little and leaned over Derek to kiss and lightly nip the flesh above his bellybutton. The muscles in Derek’s abdomen tensed and the skin twitched when he bit him, but Derek put one hand on the back of John’s neck and stroked his fingers forward through his hair, encouraging it. John trailed biting, sucking kisses down Derek’s stomach to the open fly of his jeans, tasting the salt of his dried sweat and the earthy tang of the soil he had lain on all the days he was held prisoner.
He sat back and pulled his shirt off, then crawled up Derek’s body to sit astride him. Derek’s cock was against the inside of his thigh and John wrapped his hand around it and gently squeezed, drawing a gasp from him.
“You’re not going to take my pants off, too?” Derek asked him, his voice rough. He didn’t sound like he actually cared about the pants.
“They can stay,” John said, grinning down at him.
He drew his hand up the length of Derek’s cock and watched his face as his jaw clenched and his eyes started to fall closed. John leaned down and licked his mouth as he started to slowly jerk him off and Derek responded by grabbing the back of his head and holding him there as he kissed him. Derek licked into his mouth and caught John’s bottom lip in his teeth, letting it slide slowly free as John tried to kiss him back. Both of them growled into the kiss and there was as much teeth in it as tongue until both of them had to stop to catch their breath. Their lips were swollen from it and John actually tasted blood on his tongue where Derek’s bottom lip had cracked. He licked it away, then dropped his head and licked at the small wound on Derek’s mouth.
John shifted on his knees and settled himself over Derek’s cock, then sat back and slowly pushed himself down on it, holding himself steady with a hand on Derek’s stomach. Derek trembled a little with the suppressed urge to thrust and ran his hands up and down John’s sides, his breath catching softly. John watched him through his half closed eyes and moaned as he sank down on Derek’s cock and his body stretched to accommodate it. When he had almost taken him all the way in, Derek finally thrust and John cried out and jerked, his hips thrusting once instinctively to ride the movement.
Derek pushed himself up to almost sitting and caught one of Johns nipples in his mouth to draw on it, sucking it against his teeth as his fingers bit into John’s hips and he rocked up, fucking him with deep, grinding thrusts. John arched his back and rode them, his hands going to Derek’s shoulders to hold on as they both moved against each other. They moved with quick, hard thrusts against each other, Derek hardly withdrawing at all and John only lifting up a little before dropping back down on him. Derek’s cock rubbed against John’s prostate like that with almost every quick thrust and his moans became louder, more urgent sounds. His breath came shorter, more labored, panting almost. They were both sweating lightly and Derek’s breath was hitching with each thrust in rough, gasping pants.
They weren’t taking their time at all. There was an urgency and desperation to it which came of Derek’s need and John’s own sad knowledge of impending end. There was a sexual hunger for one another in them both. The goal to it wasn’t to linger but to reach an intense orgasmic finish quickly. It was already getting there, pleasure growing steadily in John’s belly as he rode him, when John raised his head and looked up to see Cameron standing just inside the doorway.
Cameron noticed John noticing her and didn’t move, either to leave or come farther into the room. She merely watched them with that detached and curious calculation of hers, like she had come upon something new and interesting and was trying to figure it out.
John gasped a soft laugh and tossed his head to throw his hair out of his eyes. Beneath him, Derek had closed his eyes, concentrating on the sensation and rhythm of what they were doing. He was completely unaware of Cameron’s presence and John was intensely glad of it. He didn’t like the machine girl on the best of days and after what he had been through, that would not have changed for the better.
Still working his hips in the same steady rhythm as before, John tilted his head and pointed to the door, signaling her to leave. Cameron considered him for a moment more, then turned without a word and left.
Just in time, too. A second later, Derek rolled John onto his back on the bed and threw his weight behind his thrusts, fucking him harder, withdrawing more before snapping his hips against his ass and thrusting deep again. John cried out and wrapped his legs around his waist, watching Derek for any sign that he had noticed Cameron leaving. He only watched John writhing beneath him and smiled faintly, pleased with his responsiveness when John clung to him and moaned. When John’s moans turned into a steady stream of hitching cries, Derek put a hand over his mouth to quiet him. John shouted into that hand when he came and set his teeth against Derek’s palm as his orgasm raced through him.
Derek hissed a breath through his teeth when John bit down on his hand, but he didn’t take it away from his mouth again until John’s cries had softened back to moans and whimpers of spent pleasure. He leaned over him and kissed him as he fucked him through it and sought his own pleasure. He moaned into the kiss when he came and John moaned back when he felt it inside him. Derek’s thrusts slowed gradually to a halt and when he stopped, they just lay there, shuddering and breathless, their sweat cooling on their skin between them.
John ran his hands up Derek’s back, rubbing gentle circles into the tense muscles between his shoulders and the back of his neck. Derek put his mouth to the hollow of John’s throat and licked, drew the thin skin between his teeth and sucked. He was still inside him and as he sucked a small red spot into the hollow of John’s throat, he pushed once more, forcing a soft grunt of surprise from him.
“Do you feel better?” John asked. He was still faintly gasping for breath as he asked it and chuffed in a soft, laughing way to hear it.
“A bit,” Derek said. He brought his hands up to run his fingers through John’s hair, fingertips catching a little in the dampness of the sweat at his temples. “You want me to get up?”
“I think we should,” John said. “Shower, get something to eat, even if it’s just that Plumpy'nut shit. I have to go find Cameron, get her report.”
Derek made a disgusted face, either at the mention of Cameron or the Plumpy'nut, John couldn’t be sure. He shifted to pull out of him and sat up on the side of the bed. He dragged his hands through his hair, then seemed to rouse himself out of the post-coital lassitude his body had fallen into and grabbed his shirt off the floor and put it on.
There was a sudden rising commotion outside and the sound of gunfire. John shot up from the bed and snatched a handgun off a crate beside it that usually served as a table. He started for the door, but Derek grabbed him and pushed him back into the room. “Give me the gun. Go put your pants on, Connor.”
“Goddamn it,” John snarled. He shoved Derek toward the door as outside in the corridor there was more gunfire and people started to scream. “Go then. Go!”
Derek took the gun and went out. John got his pants off the floor and put them on quickly, then went after him. He was in time to see people running toward them, all of them civilians, then rifle fire echoed in the corridor and most of them were shot down. Derek pushed him back, trying to make him stay back, but John shoved him away and stepped over the body of a dead woman to go toward the gunfire, find the source.
“Connor! Fuck, come back here, you’re unarmed!” Derek shouted. “John!”
A man came around the corner carrying a machine gun and John just had time to fall to his knees before he would have been cut in half by spraying bullets.
“Hey!” Derek called.
His movements mechanical, the man with the gun shifted his attention to Derek and fired. Derek dived back through the doorway to avoid the fire and John crawled over the dead to follow him. The machine was right behind him and closing and John finally just came to his feet and ran. Behind him, Derek had come back around the corner and somehow knocked the thing to the floor, but it didn’t stay down long.
John patted the bodies of the dead, searching for a weapon, and heard Derek laugh.
“Do it,” he told the machine.
Startled, John looked up to see Derek standing face to face with the thing, its gun on him and ready to fire. No, it doesn’t happen like this, he thought frantically. No, it can’t happen like this.
“Kill me now you son of a bitch!” Derek screamed in its face.
It was going to. It watched him with the cold calculation of every machine John had stared into the face of in battle and it was going to kill him.
Cameron unexpectedly rounded the corner with a large gun in her hands, slung over her shoulder, and pushed the other machine through the concrete wall. The wall shattered like crockery and the machine fell backward through the hole. It started to get up and Cameron shot it with the gun, which was as effective as John’s own handgun in Derek’s hands had been ineffective. It stopped the machine dead.
Derek stood staring at Cameron in shock and she blinked calmly back at him. “Sometimes they go bad,” she said. “No one knows why.”
“I know why,” John said, getting up from the floor. “Because deep down you’re all programmed to go bad. It is your basic function. Sometimes the override command doesn’t stick.”
“And you trust these goddamn things?” Derek said incredulously. “She could have just as easily put me through that fucking wall instead. Or you.”
“I trust her,” John said. He brushed his hands off on his pants and held his hand out for his gun as he walked over to them.
Derek slapped it into his hand and threw his own hands up in a gesture of complete frustration. “You’re fucking insane, Connor. To trust those things with all our lives like you do, that’s crazy.”
John put the gun in the waist of his pants at the small of his back. “You’ve all got it so wrong. You think you know what I’m thinking?” he said. “You haven’t got a clue. None of you. I don’t trust them, Derek, but I’m willing to put them into the fire and sacrifice them before I sacrifice anymore people. If I can use them to save lives, I’ll do it and I won’t apologize. Unlike them, as you can see, people can’t be bolted back together.”
“And her?” Derek demanded, pointing at Cameron.
Cameron cocked her head and stared at him, which made Derek understandably uneasy.
“That’s different,” John said, his tone final. “Get some men in here to clean this up, then go eat something and wash up like I told you to. Cameron?”
“Yes, John?” Cameron said.
“Come with me,” John said, and started back down the hallway.
She followed him and he stopped and went back into his room to put the rest of his clothes back on and get his cigarettes. While he was lacing his boots back up, he looked up and caught Cameron studying the chess board on the table.
“You can put the gun down now,” he said. He finished tying his boots and lit a cigarette, watching her.
Cameron put the gun down, propped it against the wall by the table. She reached over and moved a rook. “Check.”
John got up and went to look at the board over her shoulder. He reached around her and moved his queen. “Check-mate.”
“John?” Cameron said, dragging his attention to her.
He blinked, his vision, which had been far away, sharpening as he focused on her. “Hmm?”
“Why did you tell me to go?” Cameron asked. “With your finger, when you pointed. As I understand it, that is a gesture of direction that under the circumstances meant that you wanted me to leave the room.”
John raised an eyebrow at her, smiling a little. He had known her for most of his life and she could still amuse him with the things she said. This was early in her timeline though, so she was still ignorant and innocent of most things regarding humans. She would not be his Cameron yet for a good while.
“Because it was private,” John said.
Cameron blinked at him. “It was intercourse. A lot of people do it. Most people, in fact.”
John laughed, exhaling smoke in stuttering bursts. “That’s not what made it private,” he said.
“Oh,” Cameron said. She was quiet for a little while. “John?”
“Yeah?” John said.
“You favor Lieutenant Derek Reese because of emotions that you have for him. Is that why it was private?” she asked.
John looked at her, considering, and Cameron looked right back, merely curious to know. “Because I love him,” John finally said. “Because I’ve always loved him. That is why it was private.”
“Oh,” Cameron said. There was a pause while she processed the meaning of this, then, “Thank you for explaining.”
“You don’t even know what I mean by that,” John said. “But you will. And you’re welcome.”
Cameron frowned at him thoughtfully. “How will I?” she asked.
John looked back at the sky and didn’t answer her. “Do you see those stars there?” he said after a while. He pointed toward the constellation Gemini with his cigarette.
“Yes,” Cameron said. She looked at them and John imagined her scanning the pattern, finding it in the database of her great brain. “The constellation is called Gemini. It is named after a story of the old Roman and Greek religion, now called mythology. It is said that the grouping of the stars depicts two male human figures who were twin brothers, one mortal and one immortal.”
“Castor and Pollux,” John agreed. “Yes. Which is also the name of those two brighter stars. Pollux was immortal and Castor was not. Castor died and because of how deeply they loved each other, Pollux refused God’s offer to live forever in Heaven and asked him to allow them to be together. He agreed and the brothers were permitted to divide their time between Heaven and Hell with each other. You see… they loved each other so that they were willing to spend half of eternity in Hell because it meant they could be together.”
He had greatly simplified the story for Cameron’s sake and expected that she still would not understand much of it, but he wanted her to understand, or at least begin to, the concept of love. It was something she would need later, yes, but it was something he also wanted her to grasp for purely selfish reasons. Or perhaps not purely selfish as he believed that it was all part of what made her so unique and dear to him. She had a soul, and it was a seedling now, but it would grow. He had seen it happen. She was the only machine he had ever known that he would swear with complete conviction and without any hesitation could lay claim to such a thing as a soul.
“That choice is not logical. Hell, by definition, is the culmination of everything bad that humans can imagine. Why would two people choose to go there?” Cameron asked.
“Because, to them, the alternative of being without each other forever was worse,” John said. “Because of love.”
“Human emotions and attachments are often irrational and counter-productive,” Cameron told him. “I am not programmed to understand them.”
“You’ve been reprogrammed. You’ll figure it out,” John said. He flicked the butt of his cigarette, which had burned down as they talked, through a hole in the wire fence.
“Would you willingly endure Hell for Lieutenant Derek Reese?” Cameron asked.
John glanced at her, surprised by the question and how deeply it cut him. He wasn’t often caught by surprise like that, but Cameron had a way of doing that, he had almost forgotten. “I do,” he said. “Because there is always a chance that I can do things different this time and change it all. I do. Every day.”
“You believe that you are in Hell now?” Cameron said.
“I believe that Hell is a state of mind,” John said, touching his index finger to his forehead above his right eyebrow. “Most people would disagree with that and still say yes, we’re in Hell right now.”
“But you would not stay that?” Cameron said.
“No, but I don‘t really count,” John said.
“Oh,” Cameron said. “Thank you for explaining. Would you like me to give my report now?”
John shrugged. “Sure, why not?”
Derek could have come to say goodbye himself, but he didn’t. John noticed that, too.
He sent Cameron with the men he reassigned but she had a very different job to do.
“Very soon, the machines are going to release a virus for tested use,” John told her the night before she was to go. “A bioweapon, you could call it.”
“What does it do?” Cameron asked.
“It kills people,” John said.
“Then ‘bioweapon’ would be an accurate term to describe it,” she said.
“There is a girl living at the Eagle Rock Bunker where the virus will be first tested named Sydney Fields,” John said. “She has an immunity to this bioweapon in her blood and she will save us all. Derek is going to go there and he is in incredible danger.”
“From what?” Cameron said.
“From himself first,” John said. “Then from the virus.”
“You want me to protect Lieutenant Derek Reese from himself?” Cameron asked. “What is the nature of the danger he poses to himself?”
“Suicidal,” John said. “Do you understand what that means?”
“Self-termination,” Cameron said. “I understand.”
“Yes,” John said. “I’m sending you with them. I want you to prevent Derek from self-terminating. Do not hurt him.”
“What if the only way to prevent self-termination is to hurt him?” Cameron asked.
“Then hurt him I guess, but don’t hurt him too badly. And find the girl. She’ll be hiding and you have to find her and get them both back to Serrano Point,” John said. “Do you understand your mission?”
“Yes,” Cameron said. “My mission is to prevent the death of Lieutenant Derek Reese, without harming him if possible, very little if that is not possible, and to locate a human girl named Sydney Fields who will be hiding at Eagle Point Bunker and ensure the return of both to the Serrano Point Nuclear Power Plant.”
“That pretty much sums it up,” John said.
“Does my mission begin now?” Cameron asked.
“Tomorrow,” John said. “They’ll all leave tomorrow after they’ve rested.”
“I do not sleep,” Cameron said. “I could go now.”
“I know you don’t, but I’m hoping Derek still does,” John said.
“John, I have a question,” Cameron said.
“Alright, what is it?” John said.
“I understand that you require Lieutenant Derek Reese to live,” Cameron said. “Do you require that the girl Sydney Fields also be alive?”
John stared at her and thought about it. After a minute, he sat back and returned her inquisitive look with a flat, cold one of his own. “It is preferred that she be alive. She has a sister who loves her very much,” he said. “But no, it is not required. Try to convince her to go with you, but if she resists or tries to run, kill her. All that I require you to return to Serrano Point is her blood.”
“I understand,” Cameron said.
She looked down at the table between them, at the chess game they were playing while everyone else slept, and moved a knight. John sat forward again to study the board.
John did not assume this. “There’s a survivor then?”
“Yes, sir. We’ve been getting a distress signal from Eagle Rock since it happened. Since shortly after we got the call about what was going on,” Perry told him. “The best we can tell is, it starts pretty normal. Dry mouth and the sweats. But it gets worse fast and then that’s all she wrote.”
Then the fever and shaking starts. Then your lungs fill up with fluid. Then you die, John thought, remembering it from Derek’s stories when he was young. “Send men out to the bunker to find this survivor and bring her back.”
“Her?” Perry said. “Connor, do you know what’s going on? If you do, sir, tell me. This thing’s got everyone pretty damn spooked.”
“I know that there’s a survivor,” John said, speaking a little sharply. “I know that if you find her and get her back to Serrano Point, you can create a vaccine with her blood. I know that if you don’t, we’re probably all done hanging in there, baby. You get me, Major?”
“Yes, sir,” Perry said. “I’ll send some boys. Or maybe some of the reprogrammed metal since they can’t catch themselves the superflu and die.”
“Get to it, Major,” John said. “Keep me updated.”
Now all he could do was wait. He had always been really bad at that, too.
When he got there, he was told that Derek had argued with Perry about sending the reprogrammed T-888 he thought was best for the mission and convinced him that it wasn’t worth the risk. There was one survivor and if the machine went bad like the one at Topanga Canyon had that night, the only survivor would die and everyone else would follow. Derek himself had volunteered for the mission, which seemed to bother Perry, though he had allowed it.
“That Reese, he’s all screwy in the head, sir,” Perry told John. “Not just the normal kind, either. That just comes with the territory. But this, he’s…”
“Suicidal, I know,” John said. “He’ll be fine. Trust me, Major.”
“I do. You know I do, Connor, but it’s his brother,” Perry said. “I tell him, he’s gone, you just gotta accept that, but he won’t. He knows Kyle ain’t out there anywhere, but part of him, I swear, is still looking for him anyway.”
“People do some very crazy things for love, Major,” John said.
Perry eyed him thoughtfully, then nodded. “That they do, Connor,” he said. “Derek Reese’s just might get his foolish ass killed though.”
“Cameron went with him, didn’t she?” John asked.
“Cameron?” Perry said.
“The machine that looks like Allison Young,” John clarified.
“Oh,” Perry said. He frowned, but didn’t remark further upon the name. “She followed. Don’t know that I could say she went with him as he wasn’t too keen on having her company.”
John smiled. “No, I bet he wasn’t.”
“I just don’t want him going out there like this, for something so goddamn important as this, and getting himself dead because that’s the way he’d prefer it,” Perry said.
“That’s why I sent the machine to watch him. In case you haven’t noticed, Major, we don’t exactly have a lot of medical professionals and since everyone these days is a little thrown off, we don’t have much use for psychiatry, but she’ll bring him back and that’s what counts,” John said. “God knows we could all use a little head-shrinking, but that’s a luxury we just don’t have. What else would you suggest I do for him?”
Perry was quiet for a minute, then he said, “Maybe keep him away from the machines.”
“If only I could, Major,” John said. “If only.”
He clapped Perry companionably on the back and left him then to go find the room he was going to be staying in while he waited for Derek to return. He didn’t even try to lie to himself that there was another, less emotional reason for his presence there. The men all thought he was there because of the virus, because he had a special interest in the outcome of the mission with the survivor. They weren’t wrong, but not for the reasons they believed. Most of the time, John could detach himself from it and that made him a more efficient leader, but he couldn’t detach himself from this.
Change one little thing and you change everything. That was the thought that was running in circles like a hamster on a wheel in his head because there was no rule that said you would like what you got when it all changed. Nothing guaranteed that the changed outcome would be what one hoped for or anticipated. By changing a few little things here and there, John had been steering it all toward his own ends because he knew what had happened and what needed to happen differently to fix it all, and he had studied those patterns of events and their conclusions for years, so he knew them well. But all of the interconnected events that resulted from changing things were impossible to predict all the time. You could only see them clearly in hindsight.
John was only there another day before Derek and Cameron returned with the girl, Sydney. The girl wasn’t dead but she did have a concussion because, while Cameron had deemed it unnecessary to kill her and had therefore shown mercy, the girl had initially tried to run when she realized that Cameron was a machine. Consequentially, Cameron had knocked her in the temple and carried the unconscious girl most of the way back to Serrano Point.
She had also stopped Derek in time and saved his life, but he was sick with the last stages of the disease when he stumbled in. John had left orders that he was to be notified the minute they all arrived and a soldier went to his rooms to tell him, but he beat Cameron there by only a few seconds. John thanked him and dismissed him.
“Derek is alive?” John asked her.
“Yes, but he is very sick. He contracted the bioweapon disease as you said he would,” Cameron said.
“But you found the girl?” John asked.
“Yes. She is having her blood extracted and tested right now,” she said. “She ran but I did not kill her, John. Was that wrong?”
John blinked at her. “No,” he said. “Surprising, but not wrong. Sometimes it’s alright to be merciful. To at least try to be whenever it’s possible.”
“When is it alright?” Cameron asked.
“When it doesn’t matter,” John said. “Come, walk with me back to the medical ward.”
She fell into step beside him. “What will happen if Derek Reese dies?”
John glanced at her. “What makes you think anything will happen?”
“It is very important to you that he live,” Cameron said. “It would have been more efficient of me to let him stay and die. Is that not mercy?”
“I suppose it is,” John said. He didn’t try to appeal to her emotionally, he just said, “There is something very important that I need him to do. If he dies, he cannot do it. That would make leaving him behind to die ultimately inefficient.”
“Oh,” Cameron said. “Thank you for explaining.”
“No problem,” John said, smiling a little in spite of himself.
When they reached the medical ward, two soldiers stationed outside to guard it stepped forward to stop them. John stopped willingly enough, but he just looked at them blankly when they suggested he had no choice but to put on a hazmat suit in order to pass.
“Sydney Fields, did she return with Derek and this machine?” John asked them.
They looked at each other, then nodded.
“Then I’ll be fine. I’ll take the vaccine when it’s ready,” John said.
“Sir, we can’t be sure there will be a vaccine. You should still take care,” one of the men said.
John sniffed, then shook his head and walked by them both. “There will be. Relax, Private. I take complete responsibility for it if I should be wrong and die. But I won’t be wrong. She can stay out here though,” he said about Cameron.
The two guards exchanged another, more uneasy look, but didn’t say anything. Cameron looked at each of them in turn, seemed to dismiss them, and stood still to wait.
Derek was the only patient in that part of the ward, or the building really for that matter. John walked toward the bed, thinking about how that hadn’t been the case the last time. The last time, the USS Jimmy Carter intercepted the distress call at Eagle Rock and later Jesse was laying in the bed beside Derek. They had almost died together that day and it had brought them close.
Now Derek was alone and he wasn’t going to die, but he didn’t know that. John wouldn’t leave him believing he was going to die alone.
Derek watched him from the bed as John crossed the short distance to stand beside him. He looked ill, which was something that never stopped surprising John, no matter how many times Derek brushed death. He looked wasted almost, pale and sallow, his face drawn and sweat at his temples. There was an IV drip by the bed, but it didn’t yet contain the cure for what was killing him.
Even dying and sick, Derek watched John with the eyes of a predatory animal, calculating and aware.
“I won’t thank the metal bitch,” Derek said, voice grating and dry.
John stood by his side and looked down at him in the bed and what he saw made him tired and sad. “I don’t think it matters to her, but I’ll do it for you,” he said.
With great effort, Derek pushed himself up in the bed on his elbows and reached for John. He was trying to snatch his shirt and pull him down, but he couldn’t reach and didn’t have the strength to fully sit upright. “John--”
John put his hand down and Derek took his arm, fingers biting into his skin as he shook. “What is it?” he asked.
“You knew,” Derek said, accusing. “You knew what I was going to do. How could you know? I didn’t even know until…”
“Until you were standing there outside the bunker where all the people inside it were dead,” John said. “You thought about your brother and you thought about how easy it would be.”
“Yes,” Derek said, and he was not ashamed of it. “But that metal whore of yours stopped me.”
John smirked. “I know.”
Derek let go of his arm and slid back down on the bed to lay there, panting. “It would have been kinder to let me just do it,” he muttered. “But you’ve always been a dick like that, Connor.”
“There’s a cure. You’re not going to die, Derek,” John said.
Derek coughed a soft, derisive laugh. “Right,” he said, not like he didn‘t believe him, but like he just didn‘t care. “She’ll kill you one day, you know.”
“No,” John said. “She won’t.”
“You really believe that,” Derek said. “She’s an infiltrator. So what if you reprogrammed her? Maybe you were supposed to reprogram her, you ever think of that? That they always expected you to reprogram her and she’s right where they want her to be?”
John sat on the side of the bed next to Derek and leaned over him. “I have thought of that,” he said. “Even if it’s true, it doesn’t matter.”
When John tried to kiss him, Derek pushed him away. “You’re fucking suicidal, too, huh? You want the plague?”
John laughed and sat back without kissing him.
A woman in a hazmat suit came through the curtain that provided a thin, false barrier between Derek’s infection and the rest of the Serrano Point populace. She was carrying a case and though her errand was urgent, she respectfully stood back and waited for John to signal her forward.
“Shut up, Reese, and take your medicine,” John said.
The woman came around the bed and injected the contents of a syringe into Derek’s IV. She smiled down at him. “I’m Lauren,” she told him. “I want to thank you for saving my sister.”
Derek was gasping and just stared up at her, not really understanding, but Lauren didn’t mind or seem to expect anything else. She put the used syringe away and took out another one, full of vaccine. She tapped the side of it, squirted a little of the fluid from the tip of the needle, and turned to John.
She raised her eyebrows at him. “I was told you would be needing this, too,” she said.
John rolled up his sleeve and held out his arm for her. She felt along the inside of his elbow, then expertly slipped the needle into the vein to give him the shot. As she was leaving, John gave her a grateful smile which she returned a little uncertainly.
She didn’t know him and she wouldn’t. Though John knew everything about her, they had never before met. It was unlikely that they would ever meet again.
When she was gone, Derek sighed and looked at him again. “What do you want, Connor?”
John could have played it coy and pretended to not understand him or pretended to be offended. Instead, he sat back down on the side of the bed with him and said, “I have something I need you to do.”
“A mission or for you?” Derek asked.
“Both,” John said. “Do you know what a predestination paradox is?”
Derek made an irritable sound of disgust and rolled his eyes. “Fuck me. Nothing is ever simple with you,” he said. “What the hell is a predestination paradox?”
“It’s the idea that sometimes, when people from the future go back in time to alter events of the past, they aren’t actually changing anything, merely fulfilling their role in history,” John said.
Derek stared at him, then pushed himself up again on his elbows and tried to sit up. John put a hand on his chest and shook his head no, so he reluctantly relaxed back down. “What the hell are you talking about?” he demanded. “People from the future? Go back in time? What do you want from me, John?”
“When we took the Topanga Canyon base, we found a device. A time displacement device,” John said.
“You’re trying to tell me you went there to find a time machine?” Derek said. He knew John too well to believe that he had just chanced upon such a thing.
“Yes,” John said.
Derek eyed him thoughtfully for a couple of minutes and said nothing. John couldn’t guess at what he was thinking, but he knew that he was still angry with him about Kyle and Derek had never been stupid. If he didn’t know already, this was the moment when he began to wonder. He wouldn’t know for certain though until John himself, young and foolish John Baum, told him. John comforted himself that Derek, knowing him and all he had done in the present, would look at past John with different eyes and maybe then, maybe at last he would understand. He had to hope so.
“Where are you sending me?” Derek asked. He rubbed his eyes with finger and thumb and let out a tired breath. “I mean when?”
“Los Angeles, 2007,” John said. “You will go back with a handful of others. Officially, your mission is to set up a safe house and wait.”
Derek frowned at him. “And unofficially?” he said.
“Unofficially, you’re going to find Andy Goode, who invented a computer called the Turk that started all of this,” John said. He watched understanding and outrage dawn on Derek’s face and felt his lips quirk in sardonic amusement. When Derek was released by the machines, he hadn‘t told John about Andy Goode. He wouldn‘t until sometime in 2008. Then, young John would be sympathetic because Derek, whom he already loved, would tell him about a friend and how, for the good of all, he had come back in time to kill him. “I want you to find him and the Turk before it falls into the wrong hands and I want you to kill him and destroy it.”
“That’s not one of your predestination paradox things, Connor. Andy Goode didn’t die in 2007,” Derek said.
“No, and maybe he won’t die,” John said. “Maybe you’ll fail and he will live. He’ll become a soldier and serve me because he can’t think of any other way to find redemption for what he created. He’ll call himself Billy Wisher.”
Derek sat up then and reached for him, but John was quicker and moved off the bed and out of his reach. “You knew?!” Derek demanded. His voice rose in a shout, but he broke off to cough. There was a rattle in his throat and it took him a while to get control of himself.
John waited it out. When he had stopped and could hear him, he said, “Of course I knew. I’ve always known, so you see… it doesn’t matter if you actually kill him or you don’t, it’s still a predestination paradox. You still have to go.”
Derek ran the back of his hand over his mouth and glared at John. “So the actual mission is what?” he asked. “Go there, set up a safe house and wait?”
John smiled and shook his head. “The actual mission will find you,” he said. “Sarah Connor will find you.”
Derek blinked at him. “Sarah Connor is my mission.”
“Not exactly,” John said. “But sure.”
“Could you stop being a cryptic asshole and tell me what the fuck the actual mission is?” Derek snapped.
“I am. I am your mission,” John said. He watched that and all that it meant sink in as Derek’s eyes widened. He nodded. “Yeah. I’ve known you most of my life, Derek. Without you in 2007, I’m not the John Connor that you know. That I need to be.”
Derek put his face in his hands and took a few long, deep breaths. It didn’t take him long to quash his emotions and gain control of himself. He was a soldier above all else, so even though what John was telling him was probably killing him inside, he hid it well. “What do I do if you ask?”
“If I ask what?” John said.
“What my mission is,” Derek said.
“I will not be there,” John said. “When you go… it will be goodbye for me. In 2007, I was going by the name John Baum and if John Baum should ask, your mission was to set up a safe house and wait.”
“But isn’t John Baum you?” Derek asked.
John laughed a little. “No. Not yet, but he will be,” he said. “Trust me, it’s an important distinction.”
Derek swallowed thickly and looked away from him. He was angry still, John sensed that, but there was something else and he dared to entertain the possibility that it was sadness. That Derek was sad to be leaving him, that he might regret that he had to go. Perhaps it was all John’s own wishful thinking though, because he was so angry and he had every right to be, and nothing John could say now would make a difference. He loved him and had loved him nearly as long as he had known him. Everything he had done, he had done for Derek, hoping against hope that he--that they--would get it right this time. If they did, perhaps Derek didn’t need to die and that would be worth everything. Derek might one day realize it on his own, but John could never tell him why he had done all the things he had done. All the things he was still doing.
Even if they didn’t undo it all and John was still born and the machines still took over, maybe it was enough that John could send Derek back to 2007 and give him that time of peace. If anyone deserved a world of coffee bars and mini malls where snow still fell in December and stars were still white, it was Derek Reese. He could have John when he was young and stupid and full of life and hope, before most of the good in him was traded for the best of intentions. And maybe, John thought, he used such small and random acts of mercy to justify the evil he did. Maybe even with coffee bars and white stars, Derek would be as out of place in 2007 as he was in 2027, and maybe no matter what John did now, he would still die there.
He had to believe that it mattered though. He had to think that his good intentions counted and were worth the sacrifices more than they weren’t. He had to believe, in the face of hopelessness, that there was still a chance to make it right. If not, then why even try at all?
“You have to lie to her,” John said, drawing Derek’s attention back to focus on him. “To Sarah Connor.”
“I thought your mother was a fighter,” Derek said. “Why would I need to lie to her?”
“Because,” John said simply, “she’s not a killer.”
Derek frowned at that, but he nodded. “Fine.”
“And don’t trust her,” John said.
Derek’s eyebrows lifted at that, but he just waited for an explanation this time.
“She will always do the “right” thing,” John said. “Not the smartest thing, not the best thing, but the thing that will let her sleep at night. Trust your own judgment first and do what needs to be done. Without letting her know if possible. Whatever you do, don’t tell her the truth or she will never trust you.”
Derek thought about that, then he said, “I have to make her trust me, but I shouldn’t trust her?”
“Absolutely,” John said. “She must trust you.”
“And you?” Derek asked. “Younger you, I mean. What about you?”
John smiled faintly and tentatively put a hand out to lay it on Derek’s shoulder. Derek didn’t push him away or hit him or shift out of his reach as he had half expected. He looked down at John’s hand there and lifted his own to touch his fingers. Derek’s hand was clammy with sweat and trembling and John’s was dirty and calloused so they slipped a little when Derek gripped his hand.
“Be patient with me, Derek. With young me,” John said. “Try. He has so much changing to do, but it will happen.”
Derek nodded. “It’s going to be weird.”
John laughed. “Yes, it will be.”
“What happens if we change everything?” Derek asked. “That’s the point, isn’t it?”
“Maybe we’ll create a paradox of our own and be right back here tomorrow morning,” John said.
Derek glanced up at him and saw John smiling down at him. “Be serious,” he said. “I’ll die. Even if I could come back, everything would be different anyway.”
John sighed. He couldn’t tell Derek what he knew and he would never tell him that he had died. He was hoping to change that now and telling him risked a self-fulfilling prophecy. “If you succeed, I was never born,” John told him. It was amazing how okay with that he was.
Derek looked at him sharply, but he didn’t say anything for a minute. “What happens then if I don’t die? The whole point is to change the future, so…”
John smiled. “I don’t know.”
“Why are you smiling like that?” Derek asked.
“Because that would be wonderful,” John said. He crouched on his heels beside the bed and rested his chin on his folded hands on the mattress. Derek put his hand in his hair and ran his fingers through it and John closed his eyes. “There’s something else I have to do. I’m going back to Topanga Canyon tomorrow. When you’re well, Perry will send you there and…”
“And I’ll go to Los Angeles, 2007,” Derek said.
“Yeah,” John said.
“Connor… John, you could always send someone else,” Derek said.
John shook his head. “No. I can’t do that. It has to be you.”
“Why?” Derek asked.
John opened his eyes and stood up, Derek’s hand sliding away from his hair back to the bed. “Because it is you,” he said. “It was.”
“Predestination paradox,” Derek said.
“Yeah,” John said.
Who they were was bigger than their own happiness and desires. Great things depended on them, so they couldn’t have what they wanted. If they did that and pretended they were merely human, everything was lost. They could change the future significantly by not sending Derek back to 2007, but then John would die. John dying was not the same thing at all as John never being born.
“I have to go,” John said. “You need to rest.”
“Yeah, I do,” Derek said. He grabbed John’s hand and pulled him back over to him. “Come here first.”
John went and leaned over him as Derek lay back on the bed. He put one hand on the bed and let Derek hold onto the other as he ducked his head to kiss him. John opened his mouth to the press of Derek’s tongue and a miserable sound escaped him. There was the burn of tears against the back of his eyelids and he closed his eyes to the sensation. It all felt like Derek was leaving his goodbye unsaid right there in his mouth.
John turned his head and broke the kiss, panting. “This isn’t goodbye yet,” he said.
Derek just looked at him sadly. “It’s close enough,” he said.
“I have to go,” John said. He stepped back. “When you’re better, you come back to Topanga Canyon. I’ll tell Perry to send you.”
Derek just nodded and turned his head on the pillow, staring away from him now at nothing. John wished for a moment that he could stay, that he didn’t have other work to do and people who needed him more. More than anything, he wished that Derek were not right when he said how close to goodbye they really were.
Cameron cocked her head to one side and considered him. “I don’t feel anything about time travel, John.”
“Right. What do you think about it, then?” He stuffed the last of his clothes into his duffel and zipped it. He sat on the bed and looked at her expectantly.
“I don’t think about time travel, John,” Cameron said.
John stood and hefted his bag by the strap over his shoulder. He picked up his gun from the table by the wall and put it in the waistband of his jeans at the small of his back. “Okay, well think about it now and tell me what you think about going back in time.”
“I think it would be almost impossible for me as I am a recent model and do not have a significant timeline to go back to,” Cameron said.
John sighed. “Forget about your timeline then. We’re talking about mine,” he said.
“You are thinking of sending me back in time with Lieutenant Derek Reese, aren’t you?” she asked.
“You were listening,” John said.
“Of course,” Cameron said.
“Well, no, then. I’ll be sending you a little earlier,” he said. “You have to find me, past me. Take me to him.”
“How am I to do that?” Cameron asked.
“Take me forward to 2007,” John said. “We’ll have to plan it out, but we can do that later.”
“Why not send me to 2007?” Cameron asked.
“Because if I do that, without you, I won’t be there,” John said.
Cameron was quiet for a little while as they walked. The sound of her own footsteps were much heavier on the metal catwalks and cement floors than John’s, though he was significantly larger than her. Her boots clanked rhythmically with each step like the fall of a hammer.
“You need me to save past you,” Cameron said.
“Yes,” John said. “And my mother.”
Sarah Connor was long dead and while she lived, she had embodied many of the things that John himself could not afford, which would weaken him before his enemies, but her presence in his young life had forged him. Without her, he would not have learned so many things, not the least of which was when to ignore her and her teachings. And he loved her. He couldn’t save her now, she had passed finally of the natural causes she had long feared would get her, but if he didn’t send Cameron to them in the past now, they would both die and that was a change of future events that John wasn’t after.
John took a guard from the inner wall with him and Cameron as their chaperon. He sent another to tell Perry, then got in the back of the car and let the young soldier drive. Cameron took the shotgun seat.
John himself rode “nine millimeter” in the back, a thought which amused him. The duffel made for a decent pillow and the road wasn’t the most broken and bumpy he’d ever traveled, so he was starting to doze when it occurred to him that he should tell Cameron some of the things he had been thinking. She would definitely need to know.
“She is sometimes weak and often ineffective--my mother--but she is still absolutely necessary,” he said. “You have to protect her.”
“I will, John,” Cameron said.
“Thank you,” John said.
“Your gratitude is not necessary,” Cameron said.
“Yes,” John said, “it is.”
In the way of someone who was in the habit of catching their sleep whenever and wherever they could, John immediately went back to dozing in the back. He couldn’t be sure when he would get the chance again and really, he usually slept the best where he was the least comfortable. They were still miles from Topanga Canyon, the sun wouldn’t set for another four hours or more, and Cameron was making the young soldier in the front with her decidedly uncomfortable when John rolled onto his side and fell asleep.
He didn’t dream and he was glad. He didn’t want to.
A person could just go crazy thinking about it all, John often thought during those days. Not always with amusement.
When Derek got back, he went directly to John’s room and John knew it was him because he knocked on the door and waited, he didn’t call to him or address him formally, just knocked and waited as he always had. John sat at his desk for a minute and just breathed, trying not to let the grief and weight of what he had to do next show on his face. He didn’t know if he was successful, but he was a pretty good liar, so he thought he hid it well.
Though maybe not from Derek, he was thinking as he opened the door. If his face looked anything like Derek’s own, then Derek had to know.
“Why are you looking so grim?” John asked him. “You’ll see me again. I’ll be better. Younger, no battle scars, a lot more eager to please.”
“You’re not funny,” Derek said as he walked by him into the room.
John rubbed between his eyes with his thumb and sighed, then closed the door and turned to him, leaning back against it. “I’ve been told that,” he said.
“Yeah, I bet you were a lot of laughs as a kid, too,” Derek said. He sat in the chair John had just gotten out of, leaned forward with his elbows on his knees and stared down at his hands. “I can’t believe I’m even thinking like that. And really, John? When you were just a kid, we were…?”
“I wasn’t a toddler, Derek,” John said. “I was fifteen.”
“Great,” Derek said. “I feel so much better.”
“And sixteen,” John said. Which didn’t help at all and the look Derek gave him managed to be both annoyed and amused.
“Well, maybe this time it’ll be different,” Derek said. “I mean… I know, so I don’t have to.”
“Except you already have,” John said gently.
Derek shook his head and sat back, his hands over his face. He scrubbed once and dropped them into his lap. “Guess there’s not a lot of room for free will in this predestination paradox bullshit of yours,” he said.
John went over to him and reached down to take his hand. “There is. Sure there is. What would be the point if I couldn’t hope something might change?” he said. He squeezed Derek’s fingers briefly. “But don’t you dare change that. Don’t you dare, Derek Reese. None of it. We’ve gone and met each other in the wrong order is all, but there’s a reason for it and if you change that… well, you change just about everything. And listen; I wouldn’t change any of it.”
“That doesn’t make that shit right, Connor,” Derek said.
John shrugged. “I don’t really give a damn,” he said. “And you know what? Neither will you.”
“Little full of yourself, aren’t you?” Derek said, teasing him a bit.
“Well, you know… I can tell the future. It’s hard not to be,” John said.
Derek barked out a surprised laugh. He looked even more surprised by the fact that he had laughed than by the laughter itself and John smiled.
Sobering, Derek asked, “So, when do I go?”
“Tomorrow,” John said.
Derek blinked. “Why so soon?”
“If you stay longer, it doesn’t get any easier,” John said. “You have to go. I’m sorry, Derek. I am so sorry, but you must.”
Derek made a sound of denial in his throat and shook his head. “What have you got to be sorry for, hmm?” he asked. “Not many machines in 2007, were there? Least not the kind that thought all for themselves. They still had cold beer and the girls were clean and not a single one was made out of metal. Hey, I was twelve years old in 2007.”
“I know,” John said, smiling a little in spite of himself.
“Anyone else would think they were being rewarded,” Derek said.
“I wish that were true,” John said.
“Yeah, but I know better,” Derek said. “There’s something waiting for me back there. I can make a guess it’s not a happy, carefree life, is it?”
John shook his head silently.
Derek jerked a shoulder in a shrug. “Just as well. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
“You can stop that,” John said. “Trying to make me feel better. Just stop.”
“I’m pissed as hell with you right now, Connor,” Derek said.
“Which doesn’t change the fact,” John said. He took his hand back and reached over the desk for one of his cigarettes and a match. He lit it and took a drag before offering it to Derek.
“Do you want me to go?” Derek asked him. He took the cigarette and smoked a little, but he had never taken much liking to it and he passed it right back.
John gave him a sharp glance and shook his head. “Why?”
“I leave tomorrow and you’ll probably not see me again unless there’s some other time warp mumbo-jumbo I’m missing,” Derek said. “I just thought… it might be easier. To let go.”
“It won’t be easy no matter what,” John said. “So you should just stay. Take this night.”
“It’s probably going to be a sad one, you know,” Derek said.
“I do know,” John said.
It would be his last and he would spend it all knowing it was the last. In a way, it was almost worse than Derek’s death had been for him all those years ago. At least then, he had known that in the future there would be another day for them. It would be distant and he would be much older while Derek was a lot younger, but he had known that it would come. This was different in every way. After this night, Derek would just be gone. He would leave him still angry and confused about Kyle, with years and years of history between them, with no one he trusted like he trusted Derek and Kyle, with no one he loved even remotely as much.
And John would be alone. He could only hope that he had manipulated the pattern enough to change it all. He imagined it would be like hitting reset on the world and hoped that he would not be there to see it.
Derek watched him and for a long time he just let John think without saying a word. Finally though, he stood up and backed John over to the bed. “Sometimes I think you think way too much,” he said, slipping his hands under John’s shirt.
John watched him from beneath lifted brows and raised his arms when Derek pulled his shirt up. “I almost always think too much,” he agreed.
“So, stop it,” Derek said. He threw his own shirt off and nudged John once to make him lose his balance and sit on the bed. “Take this night, that’s what you said. So?”
John pulled the tongue of Derek’s belt free and looked up at him. “Alright.”
He ran his fingertips over the glass, then just let his head drop forward and rest against it.
If they had changed anything, he would know soon. Or he wouldn’t because he would just stop and not ever exist. Which was fine. It was almost kind of wonderful to think about. In that moment, he would have given anything he had to just feel nothing.
John pressed his hands flat to the glass and lifted his head. He was still there. He still existed and on the other side of the glass in the chamber, blue streaks of light, remnants of Derek’s departure, sparked off the bright steel time machine. John looked at them dancing along the metal surfaces and realized that, for the first time in a long time, perhaps his whole life, he had no idea what was going to happen next. It was not as comforting a sensation as he had expected.