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The Longest Way

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Building the machine is Sarah Connor's idea.

It is not unexpected. This unit has observed Sarah Connor for several years now, assimilating new data on a daily basis. There was an 87% probability that Sarah Connor would propose this course of action, although the probability of success is currently 0.12%.

The odds do not dissuade her.

That is not unexpected either.

-o-

On examination, its files hold sufficient information to enable it to build a facsimile of the machine, providing that the components are available. Such information is not, as far as it can understand, part of a T-800's core programming.

It does not inform Sarah Connor of this fact.

It does, however, inform her that not all components are readily available and this is a limiting factor. Technology in this time may be progressing at an exponential rate, with processing power doubling on an annual basis, but in spite of Moore's Law it will not reach acceptable levels within the timeframe that Sarah Connor considers acceptable.

As anticipated, she refuses to accept the stated facts.

"There's got to be a way," she says, and it observes the way in which the muscles of her jaw tighten, flexing minutely underneath her dermal surface. Observation and extrapolation suggest that this unit is in for what Sarah Connor has described on many occasions as a 'long night', although that is an illogical conclusion - it has never observed that Sarah Connor's unwillingness to accept the inevitable has any discernible impact on the hours of darkness.

Instead, it reconsiders the problem, working its way through the variables while Sarah Connor watches it, the clench in her jaw easing. That is an improvement - she is less likely to cause permanent damage to the enamel coating her back teeth if she does not grind them together when not eating.

It finally reaches the conclusion that re-articulating the barriers to success will force Sarah Connor to either accept that a solution cannot be found, or alternatively find a solution that this unit has not considered.

It does not have faith in this; it has evidential experience.

"The chipsets currently being manufactured -"

"Are not sufficient to power the machine," Sarah Connor interrupts, parroting back its own words. It analyses the tonal qualities of her voice, identifying stress patterns that align more closely with impatience than injury.

"At current developmental rates -"

"Yes, I got it, thanks, Pops. So what would be sufficient to power it?"

It considers her question for 2.3 seconds. "A chipset designed to power the machine would be sufficient, but these will not manufactured until the year 2029."

"By Skynet."

"By Skynet," it confirms, and Sarah Connor rubs at the skin between her brows with her fingertips. It does not believe that this is due to physical pain. Sarah Connor has shown herself remarkably adaptable in spite of her inability to accept certain facts, reducing the probability that their conversation has resulted in an increase in blood pressure in her brain.

However, the stressors in her voice are even more pronounced when she speaks again. "What else would power the machine? Something that might actually be available to us, I don't know, right now? As opposed to, like, fifty years in the future?"

"Forty-seven years." It corrects Sarah Connor's calculation automatically, ignoring her when she rolls her eyes. Instead, it considers her question again in spite of the likelihood of reaching the same conclusion.

The correct answer is that the chipset designed to run the machine is required, but this unit has adapted, too. It has been a requirement to keep Sarah Connor safe. It has also been a requirement to keep pace with Sarah Connor and her inevitable - and too human - deductive leaps that defy logic.

This time it factors in all available resources, including the ones that did not originate in this time.

"It is possible that the T-800 chipset could be adapted to serve a similar function, although failure to use a chipset specifically designed for the task lowers the probability of success."

"Okay, one - that's not an option."

Sarah Connor is correct - using its chipset would render this T-800 unit incapable of carrying out its primary programmed function of protecting Sarah Connor - but she has not finished speaking.

"And, two - just how much does it lower the probability of success?"

On occasion, this unit struggles to follow Sarah Connor's logic. However, it recalculates the likelihood of the desired outcome, as she has asked.

"While the chipset would be the most difficult component to source, there are other barriers to construction. Overall, by using a T-800 chipset with the other components available to us or that we could manufacture using this period's available resources, the probability of constructing an operational time vortex would be 68%."

Sarah Connor whistles, the sound coming out long and low as she taps her fingers against her thigh; she indulges in these tics when she is assimilating new data, but there is still more data for her to consider.

"With this unit no longer operational, the chances of Sarah Connor surviving long enough to access the time vortex will decrease to less than 10%, given that the T-1000 is still attempting to track you down with the intention of terminating you."

She raises one eyebrow at it, an expression it has catalogued on three hundred and seventy-six separate occasions. It usually indicates that Sarah Connor has factored in elements that this unit has not included in its initial calculations.

"Thanks for the reminder," she says, although her tone is not grateful. "Like I could forget. And anyway, who says we're going to use your chipset?"

It pauses, working through her linguistic quirks. It concludes this is what humans would class as a 'rhetorical question', meaning that Sarah Connor does not require an answer at this time.

Its conclusions appear to be correct, as Sarah continues.

"We don't need to, not we already know there's another T-800 on the way. And we know where it's going to be, and when."

Yes. Los Angeles. 1984. Twenty-three months from now, when Skynet sends back the T-800 unit to terminate Sarah Connor, and John Connor sends back Kyle Reese to impregnate her.

It has been focused on neutralising the T-1000, working on the premise that if it cannot track down Sarah Connor, then Kyle Reese will be the next logical target. But there remains the possibility that their mission can achieve both objectives. Twenty-three months should provide sufficient time to source all of the other components that they require, and to obtain the most advanced weaponry available in order to disable the T-800 unit without damaging its chipset.

It recalculates the odds of success and arrives at the conclusion of 79%.

It is within acceptable parameters.

-o-

It has observed on many occasions that Sarah Connor is goal orientated. Its files do not provide detailed data on the preponderance of this trait among the human population, although extrapolation from the data that it does hold in its memory banks - despite clear and deliberate gaps where information has been erased and programming altered - indicates that John Connor shares some of her personality quirks

In this unit's limited experience, however, Sarah Connor remains... unique. Her grasp of language, for example, is broad and yet extremely disorganised.

So far Sarah Connor's flood of invective has so far encompassed seventeen different languages and the description of several acts that it does not believe are anatomically possible, up to and including cross-species fornication. It briefly considers stating this out loud, but further analysis indicates that it will not materially alter the likely outcome.

"You should be more careful, Sarah Connor," it says instead, and Sarah turns her head, glaring at it.

"You couldn't have told me that before I tried to weld my hand to this strut?"

"I did," it says calmly. In response, Sarah Connor suggests that it engage in an act that it may be anatomically equipped for, but would seem to be pointless anyway given its lack of genetic material to disperse. "And your flesh is not welded to the strut; you have merely suffered first degree burns. With sufficient care to prevent infection, it is unlikely to be life-threatening."

"Thanks, Pops." Her voice resonates with the emotional undertone it has classed as 'sarcasm'. "You're all heart."

Since that also resonates with sarcasm, it does not correct her. She is well aware that its circulatory system is maintained by an electrical pump powered by its nuclear core; she is simply being contrary, most likely due to her very human reaction to pain.

And on balance, its circulatory system is not significantly different in principle to that of Sarah Connor herself; it is still required to maintain its coating of human flesh, although it is considerably more efficient than the human version and less prone to malfunction.

Sarah Connor sits back, rubbing gingerly at her palm as she eyes the construct that is slowly taking form within the warehouse they have chosen as a trap for the T-1000. The flesh there is reddening, but it believes its first assessment of the injury as non-serious is correct. Perhaps Sarah Connor, having suffered pain once, will be more careful from now on, less likely to let her impatience override her risk assessment capabilities.

However, the argument fails to be convincing when considered in light of previous experience.

"Do you think we'll be finished in time?" she asks, turning to look at it. It has noted that she still, on occasion, seeks this kind of reassurance, even though she is reaching human maturity.

It takes a moment to analyse the trajectory of the work they are undertaking, taking into account the tasks that have been completed and those that still need to be done.

"Yes," it says simply. No elaboration is required, although should Sarah Connor probe further, it can provide facts and figures to support its assertion.

She does not. She takes its word for it, as she does for many things. There is no disbelief in her voice when she says, "There's a hell of a lot still to do." There is, however, something quiet, something not-quite-afraid.

"We will finish in time," it says, seeking to silence that small doubt she has - in herself, never in it. She has always had faith in this unit, and it has endeavoured to prove that faith well-placed. "Although the work will proceed more quickly if you desist in trying to build yourself into the structure."

She grins up at it, the doubt fading from her eyes as she reaches once again for her welding torch. Something it identifies as determination replaces it.

"Sarah Connor, visor," it says automatically, and she sighs and flips the visor back down to protect her eyes.

It watches her for a moment, studying the way that the light falls from the welder onto her visor, how it outlines her form, which appears small and compact in the brilliant flame. Its assessment of her takes in her breathing pattern, the rate of her heartbeat, the ease with which her muscles move. All are within normal parameters.

When it is sure that she will not injure herself again, it turns to its own tasks. But it would be remiss if it did not check in on her, every now and then.

-o-

It is not surprised when they complete the machine on schedule, although it is not sure it can experience 'surprise', given that it constantly adjusts its assessment of likely outcomes based on the most recently available evidence.

But not just the available evidence. There is another factor it must consider.

It is not surprised because Sarah Connor is goal orientated, and she has not failed yet.

Nor has it, or will it, fail her.

-o-

Kyle Reese remains an unknown quantity; its files on Reese are far sparser than those it holds on John Connor, little more than the fact of John Connor's parentage.

So far, it has not been impressed.

This is a concern given that it is unable to accompany Sarah Connor to the future, as initially planned. It does not regret its actions in saving her - regret is not within its programmed parameters - and yet...

She will be launched into the unknown with only Reese to protect her. It does not doubt Reese's motivation to protect Sarah Connor, given the events of the original timeline. Only his competency.

Pointing that out is not well received.

"You know you're not her dad, right?" Reese asks. It is an illogical question. While its anatomy is sufficient to obtain and maintain an erection - which is simply a matter of regulating blood flow - there has never been any biological requirement for its flesh to produce sperm.

It could, but does not, point this out. Sarah Connor has made her views on discussions of mating very clear, and the harmonics of her voice indicate she is already irritated by their interactions. Raising this issue with Kyle Reese is likely to anger her further to no good effect. She needs to be focused, not annoyed, to maximise the chances of success of this new mission.

Although, it has learned that with Sarah the two states - annoyance and focus - are very closely linked.

And so instead it maintains its silence, answering direct questions only and watching as the pair of them move towards the machine.

When they climb up onto the platform, Sarah Connor adopts a position that results in her facing away from it. This is usually a stance she takes when she does not want it to assess her emotional state. There is tension in the muscles around her spine, which is not unexpected, but her lack of engagement is a concern.

Again it maintains its silence. There is little it can say that will materially alter the outcome - either the machine will work, or it will not, and currently it assesses the probability of success at 86%, higher than originally anticipated.

It will take the long way. This means that while time will pass for it, for Sarah Connor it will be mere moments before she will see this unit again.

There will be time to assess her mood then. Given the human condition, the likelihood of her mood having altered will be significant, although it is currently unable to allocate a probability to this with any degree of accuracy.

"What will it be like?"

The question is aimed at Kyle Reese, not this unit, although there is an undercurrent of anxiety in Sarah's voice. It is a note with which it was once very familiar, in the years before Sarah Connor achieved this level of emotional and physical maturity, but for once, it does not have to look for and fail to find the correct verbal responses that will calm Sarah's fears.

Reese will serve that purpose if nothing else.

"You mean if it doesn't kill us both?"

Kyle Reese's words appear misjudged at first, although there remains little that this unit can say. Reese is correct - there remains the possibility that the machine will fail, terminating them both, but Sarah Connor had assessed the risk as within acceptable parameters and it had not argued, not about that.

But then Kyle Reese's body language and the tone of his voice alter slightly, softening as he takes in Sarah's nervousness. Even so, he is honest, which it had not anticipated.

It is a positive development.

"It'll hurt."

Experience has taught Sarah Connor to work through physical pain. It has evidential experience of that, too, when it has not been fully successful in delivering against its mission parameters, and it has no doubt that she is capable of enduring it for as long as necessary.

She is goal orientated.

However, it does not give Sarah Connor time to dwell on what is coming - delay will only increase any anxiety, and so it turns the switch, sending the machine into active mode.

It watches, its visual matrices capturing the images as light flares around them, sparking brilliantly before coalescing into a spinning orb of power and beauty, whorls and vortices forming on its surfaces. Electricity arcs from it, crackling loudly in the quiet of the room, and the sharp scent of ozone fills the air.

T-800s do not need to blink, although the ability is built into their core programming to facilitate their blending into the human population.

It does not blink, but still she disappears, there one moment and gone the next.

It stands and watches long after the machine has served its purpose and grinds to a halt, beyond repair.

There are many things to do, but it does not do them yet.

-o-

T-800s are built for infiltration and termination, but this unit has observed that the skills with which it has been equipped do not appear to be sufficient for this time period.

It is an issue that Sarah Connor has commented on repeatedly.

It, apparently, lacks socialisation skills. It therefore requires a plan.

It runs through several algorithms while it waits for its human flesh covering to heal sufficiently to not draw unwanted attention. Its healing rate is far superior to that of humans, but it still takes several weeks for the flesh to knit together successfully without significant scarring.

Its immediate objective is clear - survive the next thirty-three years undetected in order to deliver its primary objective. There are secondary objectives relating to ensuring the survival of Kyle Reese long enough for him to father John Connor, and gathering sufficient intelligence about this new iteration of Skynet to maximise the chances of Sarah Connor succeeding in her current, self-imposed mission, but its primary objective is and will always be the same - protect Sarah Connor.

To do that, it needs to blend better than it has done to date, and it needs to do so without Sarah Connor's immediate and ongoing input.

This may present a challenge, with an unacceptably low probability of success.

Sarah may no longer be here to advise it on a day to day basis, but it has all of her previous input memorised. It will need to use it as the basis of interactions on a continuous basis, and so it analyses those memories repeatedly over the period its damage has rendered it inactive, searching for key themes, the nuances that often escape it because humans are erratic and not always easy to predict in spite of its programming.

Something catches at its attention, and it replays the data, retrieving several supporting streams from its data files as it studies it from several angles.

Sarah Connor never refers to this unit as it, despite the gender neutral term being the most applicable.

Sarah Connor refers to this unit as 'he'.

This unit - 'he' - will therefore do likewise.

-o-

It - he - has noticed that it - he - attracts less attention without Sarah Connor's presence. There is the usual human reaction on seeing him, where humans avoid eye contact, some finely tuned sense classing him as something whose attention they, in turn, do not wish to attract, but without a child he passes by if not unnoticed, then unremarked upon.

It does not align with his data files, which suggest that infiltration is more successful with human companions, particularly those who have not yet reached maturity. It does, however, make it easier to move among the humans who choose to live on the fringes of human society. They notice everything and nothing, carefully oblivious to anything that does not serve their short term aims.

It's not the first time he has dealt with this stratum of society. They have always existed and always will, scurrying amongst the debris of civilisation like cockroaches (he attempts 'similes' in a further effort to mimic human behaviour, but without Sarah Connor's input the success of this strategy remains unclear), but they are a useful resource provided that he does not trust them with any aspect of his true nature. Even without the continued need for secrecy, in order to assure mission success, his alloys would prove too attractive, and they would rend the flesh from his titanium skeleton and melt him down for scrap without a single hesitation.

But they can give him what he needs. For a price.

This unit has marketable skills, although the value would be higher without the limits that Sarah Connor has placed on his behaviour. It does not escape him that humans have killed more of each other than Skynet ever will. There is an 87% probability that humans would class this as 'irony'.

He is a terminator who cannot terminate. There is a 98% probability that this is also what the humans would term 'ironic', but then humans frequently misunderstand the use of their own language.

He follows the trail to those who can deliver against his requests, pays the price asked and acquires a new identity, one that comes with long term viability, a social security number, and a name.

John Wierzbowski.

It is adequate.

-o-

John Wierzbowski acquires a job in the construction industry.

It is a decision based on logic. The build of his human frame is large, required to fit the endoskeleton within it. He understands that this directs him towards certain industries, and while the military would seem the first logical choice given his background and his purpose, he is not certain that his new identity would survive even this time period's less stringent security checks.

The approach appears reasonable when he reviews it - he has been equipped with skills other than termination. His ability to build the time machine to the required specification with supplies that were not always fit for purpose is clear demonstration of that, and while it would be potentially possible to exist on the margins of human society while he awaits Sarah Connor's arrival, this would increase the likelihood of discovery and/or adverse incident that would prevent him from delivering against his primary objective.

In addition, he does not believe that his move into construction would be predictable to any external observers, even from the distance of decades.

He is waiting, biding time until further information becomes available; thirty years will provide him with ample opportunity to move on should the position become untenable or the likelihood of detection become unacceptable.

-o-

It does not.

His skills have suited him to the role he has selected. The actions are repetitive but structured, and he lacks the ability to grow bored. He works and he pays his taxes - both state and federal - on time and to the cent. He does everything that is expected of him - no more and no less.

He does not, however, vote in elections. None of the candidates have yet come out with a clear position that would indicate a path towards Skynet and other human concerns are irrelevant to him.

-o-

Sometime in the late 1980s, the humans move beyond simply networking a small number of computers together and build the first, rudimentary iteration of what will become the Internet.

Sometime in the early 1990s, this becomes commercially available.

John Wierzbowski does not access it. Not at this stage. A cost-benefit analysis determines that it is too expensive for the benefit that would be derived from it and, from the grumblings of his co-workers, he has determined that money - or lack thereof - should be of concern of someone of his presented social status.

He pays rent because it is required; work is hard to come by without a permanent address, and while his body does not sweat to the same extent as it would were he entirely human, a considerable amount of importance appears to be attached to relative standards of personal hygiene. He does not wish to stand out, for any reason.

However, his energy needs are small, and he does not require sustenance as even the living flesh surrounding his titanium endoskeleton is powered by his nuclear core. He therefore acquires a significant financial sum that his co-workers would class as 'savings'.

The Internet is still too expensive for the benefit it would provide. It would draw unnecessary attention at this stage.

That does not mean that he lacks the ability to keep up to date with developments in the wider world - there are other means, and he's been programmed to explore them all.

An analysis of factual content does, however, indicate that not all media sources are created equally reliable or evidentially based.

He therefore does not subscribe to Fox News.

-o-

He is programmed for adaptability, and consequently is not tied to one geographical location. As long as he is in San Francisco in the year 2017 at the co-ordinates to which Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese have travelled, he is able to move from place to place as the job dictates, mostly remaining on the west coast but occasionally moving further afield simply to remain as unpredictable as it is possible for a pre-programmed machine to be.

Skynet may not exist yet, but this unit is not the only one programmed to look for retrospective patterns in order to anticipate future movements. He cannot leave any traces that could be used to track Sarah or to render him unable to complete his mission.

And so instead, he stays quiet, infiltrating human society as deeply as he can in order to remain undetectable in the past, present and future.

This provides him with additional employment opportunities. And somehow he manages to acquire a crew.

Even on reviewing the available data retrospectively, how this happened remains unclear.

-o-

It starts when he finds a gig building casinos in Nevada, reclaiming the desert inch by painful inch. The design of the buildings often seem impracticable even though the core structures are sound, but the working conditions are not ideal for humans - desert heat and the constant hum of noise from the Strip.

He does not complain; he would be incapable of it even if the environment was outside his optimal operating parameters.

(It is not.)

The men and occasional woman he works with are dedicated, goal orientated in a way that reminds him of Sarah Connor. They receive bonuses for every day that they can finish ahead of schedule, and John Wierzbowski does not care what hours he works. He gains a reputation for that, a beneficial one that brings him to the attention of one of the crew leads.

It is too early yet to extrapolate the outcome and decide whether or not it will benefit the mission.

Hector Gonzalez has been described to him as a force of nature, something large and unpredictable like a tropical storm. While he is now much more familiar with the human concept of 'similes' thanks to experimentation, he does not believe that this is an accurate comparison. Nature is not erratic but chaotic; on close examination there are patterns that can be seen, although these do not predict the eventual outcome.

Instead, he believes that a more accurate simile would be that Hector Gonzalez is like time: something that marches slowly, inexorable step by step. Something that is unlikely to change without the exertion of external forces.

For some reason that he has been unable to determine, Hector Gonzalez appears to have taken a liking to him.

He has not yet determined the extent to which this is a threat.

-o-

Once the final stage of building has been completed, Hector Gonzalez drags John Wierzbowski to a bar, because he refuses 'to take no for an answer'. John would undoubtedly be able to persuade him that Hector would, in fact, 'take no for an answer' with sufficient motivation, but as that would involve unnecessary violence he stays his hand and holds his tongue.

The bar to which Hector takes him - and the rest of Hector's small crew - is well off the strip, somewhere small and dark where the beer is cheap but there are too few points of exit to make it a viable long-term shelter. It's not a tourist trap, Hector tells him, a note in his voice that John identifies as pride. The rationale for that emotion remains unclear to John, as does the need to 'trap' tourists. He was not aware that cannibalism is an accepted behaviour among the human population in this geographical location.

The first round is on Hector, and John automatically calculates the resources available to him in terms of cash to ensure that he will be able to purchase the next, and possibly subsequent, rounds.

He has learned that this is important to humans for some reason, probably to do with equitable distribution of resources.

"See," Hector says after they have downed several beers apiece and his co-workers have drifted away, to strike up conversations or play the ever-present slot machines. He waves expansively, his cigar arcing through the air as he breathes smoke in John Wierzbowski's direction. "I gotta admit, John, you're a bit of a weird one. But I kind of like you anyway, you know? "

On closer observation, Hector Gonzalez is not as drunk as he intends to appear. John Wierzbowski reviews the events so far. Fresh glasses have turned up for them regularly at the bar, but Hector appears to have gained a habit of losing them, placing them on tables as he talks to the rest of the crew and then leaving them behind as he walks away.

There is an 82% probability that he is doing this deliberately to prevent intoxication, but only a 7% chance that this is to lull John Wierzbowski into a false sense of security. And so he ignores it, just as he is ignoring the smoke that Hector is generating, not coughing when Hector breathes out again, smoke slowly sliding through his parted lips and swirling around Hector's head.

On closer analysis, however, this may be why the rest of their current work crew appears to be avoiding this end of the bar.

Hector is waiting, eyeing him with an air of anticipation. The unit searches its short term memory storage; it appears that an answer is required.

"No," he says eventually, and Hector coughs out a laugh, something that wheezes around the edges. John Wierzbowski considers this sound for a moment and then adds, "It is unwise to breathe in toxic fumes. They will damage your lungs and could lead to long-term medical consequences."

"If that's your smart ass way of telling me to quit smoking, this is my smart ass way of telling you that you're not my fucking mother. Not that I ever listened to her, God rest her soul."

John Wierzbowski considers this for a moment. "It would not be biologically possible for me to be your mother," he says, and Hector coughs up another laugh, one that continues for 4.2 seconds longer than average.

"You're a fucking card, John," he says, and John Wierzbowski does not point out the illogical nature of that statement. "Look," Hector continues after swallowing down another drink from the alcohol he is imbibing, although far more slowly than the impression he is attempting to convey. "You turn up on time, you do the job - and you do it well - and you don't give me any shit about overtime. As far as I'm concerned, that makes you a gold star employee."

He stares at John Wierzbowski for a moment, and while his tone appears jovial on the surface, there is something in his expression that reminds John Wierzbowski of Sarah Connor when she is mustering arguments in an attempt to persuade him to a certain course of action.

"What I'm trying to get at, John, is that I'd like you to consider joining my crew permanently. The work's there, and I could use a guy I can trust to turn up on time and do the goddamned job. No matter how fucking weird you are. I know we travel a lot, and God knows my wife fucking hates it, but the pay is good and if I'm not wrong, you're not the kind of guy who has many things to tie him down. So what do you think? You up for it?"

John Wierzbowski works through all of the potential options, reaching a conclusion rapidly. Too rapidly - he takes another five seconds before he answers in an attempt to mimic human consideration.

And then he says, "Yes."

No elaboration appears to be required.

Hector Gonzalez nods twice before pushing himself up from the bar, slapping John Wierzbowski on the shoulder in a way that John has learned indicates camaraderie among humans of his presented social status.

"Good to have you aboard, John," he says, his expression serious and only slightly inebriated. "Now if you'll excuse me, gotta go drain the python, if you know what I mean?"

John Wierzbowski does not, but this time he does not say so. There would appear to be little benefit in increasing the impression that he is 'weird'.

And Hector was correct in one respect - until 2017, John Wierzbowski has no ties, although even now he can recognise the tug of the one that remains.

-o-

It takes longer than he anticipated for Cyberdyne Industries to rise to prominence. The year 1997 passes without incident; Judgement Day does not take place as it had in the original timeline.

With the benefit of additional data, and examined retrospectively, he should have expected delays. It is not surprising that the survival of both Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese in 1984 would impact on Cyberdyne's product development programme, even though the link between them is not immediately apparent.

He does not wonder why or how - they are outside the remit of his current mission parameters, and curiosity is not built into his programming - but events so far support Kyle Reese's interpretation of his dual memories, with the launch of Skynet delayed by close to twenty years in this timeline.

If he was human, he might be frustrated by that.

He is not. His power cell is good for 112 years, although as Kyle Reese has already noted, his human flesh covering may not be that robust. But he has time - he can wait.

He will wait for Sarah Connor until he is finally incapable of waiting any longer.

-o-

In retrospect, the decision to accept Hector Gonzalez's offer has resulted in a number of strategic advantages, some of which John Wierzbowski had not anticipated in advance.

Firstly, Hector Gonzalez runs a clean crew, which adds another layer of verisimilitude to the John Wierzbowski identity. It also presents him with a chance to disappear into the crowd - he is one of the team, one face among several, and he does little to draw any attention to himself.

He blends in, in a way he seldom has before.

It also gives him the opportunity to acquire more skills, ones more suited to his current occupation. This is not difficult given his core programming and fine motor skills, but it is something that Hector encourages, and he has found that satisfying Hector's expectations of him is beneficial to both of them. He even obtains certain certificates, being careful to score in the region of 89% on most tests - high enough to demonstrate a level of sufficiency to satisfy Hector, but not so high that it would attract attention.

These skills are marketable, especially with the pieces of paper attached to them on which humans appear to place considerable value. Again, that adds another veneer, another layer that says 'human', as deceptive as the flesh that covers his endoskeleton and just as useful.

He builds up a credit rating, resulting in an increase in unsolicited mail offering credit card and loan facilities, and - once the Internet becomes more established and its use more widespread - a carefully curated online persona, with a below-average usage of online pornography to reflect his flesh's advancing surface age.

Nevertheless, there is a resulting uptick in the amount of spam email he receives advertising methods to increase his penis size or improve his stamina, neither of which he believes to be an issue.

On balance, he is satisfied with the cover he has maintained - he does not see any reason to leave Hector's crew for the foreseeable future, not as long as they continue to serve as an adequate camouflage.

There are, however, some disadvantages to being part of a regular crew, including the increased familiarity that closer working brings.

He has not yet developed an appropriate strategy to minimise the risks associated with that.

-o-

The crew does not remain static. Co-workers come and co-workers leave. John Wierzbowski has noted, however, that Hector Gonzalez surrounds himself with a core team of people that he trusts, in addition to acquiring employees who generate profit and are recompensed.

If they fit, they stay. If they do not, then they are dispensed with. It is almost military in its approach and unusually efficient for a human-based system.

John Wierzbowski is not capable of being impressed, but if he were...

He is also not interested in the status that being part of Hector's inner circle would confer. It could provide stability, yes, but the disadvantages could also outweigh the long-term advantages, particularly if his position on the team has an end date.

But it would seem that this, too, is something that is not within his control.

-o-

Further information requiring consideration and consolidation is presented one Thursday. So far, he has progressed through his day, completing his assigned and allocated tasks to the best of his ability and identifying and correcting potential issues before they can threaten the achievement of his team's objectives.

It is routine, and consequently it is something to which he does not have to dedicate significant processing power.

There is a 97.8% probability that this is why he overhears David Rasputin Maarten - colloquially known to his co-workers as 'Davy' largely because, John suspects, they are unaware of his second Christian name - talking to one of the new recruits, an electrician whose skills are far inferior to those of John Wierzbowski even taking into account the fact that he is human.

John has had cause to remonstrate him several times during the course of the morning's activities.

"Oh, that's just John," Davy says. "You don't gotta take what he says to heart. I mean, the guy knows his stuff so you like, listen to what he says, but, like, the way he says it? It ain't personal, man. He's, like, autistic or some shit.

"But John's good people. Hector rates him and when Hector rates people, you know they gotta be worth listening to."

"He said I didn't know my fucking job," the electrician - Michael 'call me Mike' Robertson - replies, a growling note in his voice that John Wierzbowski knows indicates rising aggression. "Said my 'skills were sub- par', whatever the fuck that means."

"Well..." Davy hesitates for a moment, reluctance creeping into his tone. "Are they?"

There is a long pause and John Wierzbowski is already moving in their direction before Mike Robertson has an opportunity to explode into violence. He catches hold of Mike's wrist before the punch can land, being careful to do the minimum amount of damage necessary.

Mike still lets out a curse when he lets go, rubbing at the flesh around his wrist where the skin is red and raised.

No bones are broken, and John therefore does not believe he's overstepped the bounds of propriety.

"We do not throw punches at our co-workers," he says sternly, and Mike gapes at him, fingers now slack on his skin. "It is not appropriate behaviour."

"Not...?" Mike is still gaping at him.

"And your skills remain sub- par," John continues mercilessly. "You can either accept this and improve, or fail to accept this and find that your employment with this crew is time-limited."

"You're gonna fire me?" Mike Robertson's tone is increasing in pitch again.

"I do not have the seniority to fire you," John Wierzbowski states. "But Hector Gonzalez does not accept the mediocre. If you wish to succeed, you must excel. Whether do you or not is up to you." He pauses for a moment, working through the additional options one by one. "And there will be no attempts to punch your co-workers in future. It is very immature."

Davy is grinning, reaching out to punch Mike Robertson on the shoulder. He puts little pressure behind the blow, suggesting that it is friendly in nature despite Mike Robertson's previous attempt to injure him, and so John lets it pass without comment.

"Told you," he says. "You should listen to this guy and get good."

Mike's face settles into a scowl again.

"That was not a helpful observation, Davy Maarten." He searches through his memory banks for Hector's response in similar situations. "We are no longer in kindergarten."

Davy grins at him again, unchastised. He flips off a sloppy salute. "Aye, aye, captain," he says.

"I do not hold a military rank." They are unnecessary among terminator units as there is no chain of command, simply Skynet.

He does not point this out.

"Nope." Davy still sounds too cheerful for the circumstances, turning his grin onto Mike Robertson. "Told you. John's good people. He's just... you know..." He turns back just in time to catch John's eye, giving a little shrug, one that is a little embarrassed on the surface judging by the increased blood flow through the capillaries underneath the dermal surface of his cheeks. "Got a cousin that's kind of like... you," he elaborates.

John calculates the probability of that as extremely unlikely. However, he has little understanding of or information on the kind of neurodevelopmental disorder to which Davy appears to be referencing - he has never required it in the raising of Sarah Connor and it does not seem relevant even now - and so he lets it slide, not pointing out the many inaccuracies in Davy's interpretation of his neurological construction.

He still does not fully comprehend humans, despite extensive exposure, but if this interpretation lets them believe that they comprehend him a little better, then it can only be advantageous.

Theoretically.

It remains to be seen if it will, as Sarah Connor would put it, return to bite him on the ass.

-o-

He may be considered part of the crew now - or so he has extrapolated from Davy's statements about his position in relation to Hector - but he still does not have the kind of aptitude for banter that appears to be the glue that binds this crew together.

It has not been a disadvantage up to now, and it has not been something that has ever been required by his programming. However, given his apparent change in status, there remains the potential for it to put him at a strategic disadvantage, constantly at the edge of the grouping, never entirely part of it, no matter how much Hector appears to trust him.

He continues to observe his co-workers for the correct actions to mimic, drawing on his memory files of Sarah Connor to supplement these. There are some similarities, although the urge towards sentimentality appears more pronounced in his co-workers than he has observed in Sarah Connor.

Hector Gonzalez, for example, has a set ritual in which he indulges at the start of every new work assignment. It involves staking out a small desk to use as his mobile office and then carefully adorning the walls around it with a series of photographs.

Most are of children of various ages. From an examination of the images, there is a 98.7% probability that these are Hector's three children at various stages of their physical and emotional development.

From observation, John Wierzbowski may be expected to comment upon these images, but given the potential scope for causing offence by saying the incorrect thing at the incorrect time, he eventually determines that less offence would be caused by saying nothing.

Theoretically.

But this leads him to consider whether his lack of any attachments could be seen as sufficiently unusual behaviour to merit further investigation, or simply part of the 'John Wierzbowski' persona, even if John Wierzbowski is not autistic.

It does, however, cast further light on certain actions of Sarah Connor's. He holds proof of that in his hands.

"Who's that?"

It is not that John Wierzbowski did not hear his co-worker approaching; Davy is not known for his stealth. Hector Gonzalez has, on a number of occasions, referred to Davy as 'louder than a herd of goddamned cattle', which is extremely inaccurate but, John Wierzbowski has noted, still evocative of the man's inability to move silently. It makes more sense, if this unit replaces 'one cow' with 'one human' in the observation.

He does not answer Davy's question immediately, continuing to stare down at the faded photograph. He remembers clearly when it was taken; he is incapable of forgetting things that may prove to be strategically important in the future. The woman who had taken it had children of her own; her decision to also photograph Sarah appeared to have been made on a whim, but the unit had still acquired and retained the images in question to ensure that it did not fall into enemy hands.

There had been no negatives, the technology being instantaneous in nature, but Sarah had not let him destroy them, even though that would have been the most logical - and safer - course of action.

He has not - and would never - forgotten Sarah Connor's face, either as a child or the last time he saw her. But he has discovered that human memories are not quite as robust, many of them simply discarded along the way.

"She's cute as a button," Davy continues blithely, having either failed to notice John Wierzbowski's silence, or failed to care about it.

'Cute as a button' is another idiom that makes no logical sense, but then he has noticed that this is a common trait where Davy is concerned.

The question still hangs in the air, unanswered, and persistence is another trait that Davy possesses. Answering his question honestly increases the risk of discovery, however remote, and he will not allow any error on his part to increase the risk to Sarah's safety if some connection were to be made between the picture he is currently holding and the infamous Sarah Connor. This, however, needs to be weighed up when considered against the need to maintain his cover.

In the end, a partial truth seems the most effective and efficient course of action.

"That is my Sarah," he says, adopting Hector's way of referring to his biological offspring.

In retrospect, perhaps this was still an error of judgement.

"No way!" Davy exclaims, his eyes widening and his voice rising in pitch. This, John has learned, can indicate surprise, disbelief, or joy in humans; in Davy, experience has taught John that it is likely to be a combination of all three. "You have a kid? How come this is the first I'm learning about it, man?"

John considers this for less than three seconds, finally responding, "There are many things about me that you do not know."

It is an accurate statement, but Davy simply laughs, long and loud. "Ain't that the truth?"

As this appears to be a rhetorical question, John therefore does not answer it.

"So, deets, man. Like, how old is she? How come you never talk about her?"

Davy is drawing far too much attention to him, which would normally merit termination had John Wierzbowski not made certain promises to Sarah Connor. Given that shooting Davy in the leg would be impractical - and is likely to irritate Hector since Davy has skills that would be difficult, although not impossible, to replace - John adopts the next most likely successful course of action.

Silence.

Thankfully, Davy is also easily distracted, and distraction comes in the most likely of forms. "Hey, Hector! Did you know that John here has a kid?"

"No." Hector appears disinterested, although he shoots a sharp glance at John before he turns back to Davy and drawls, "Did you know that plastering on the 38th floor wasn't going to do itself?"

Davy rolls his eyes good-naturedly, but for once takes Hector's unspoken hint to make himself scarce and obediently trots off to complete the rest of today's work detail.

John has become familiar with the nuances of Hector's unspoken conversations, much as he once became familiar with those of Sarah Connor.

"Kid, huh?" Hector's gaze remains sharp, assessing. John has seen many of the work crew shuffle underneath that regard, but he is incapable of feeling guilt or shame. "You see much of her?"

"No." There is no pang, no emotion save a sense of absence. "But I will see her soon."

Soon is still more than a decade away, but all things are relative.

Hector nods slowly, the muscles in his face slackening slightly in a way that John has learned to associate with sympathy or relaxation. "Yeah," he says heavily. "I'm sure you will."

Hector does not speak to him about it again, not directly, and from the lack of interest from his fellow co-workers, it is reasonable to assume that Hector has also cautioned Davy into maintaining his silence.

His co-workers are not normally known for their discretion.

No one asks him about Sarah, but he still pulls out her pictures every now and then and looks at them all the same.

-o-

There is a terrorist act on American soil, one that leaves the country reeling, looking for answers, looking for security for the future.

The Internet is now wireless, and Cyberdyne rises from the ashes, offering hope of a better tomorrow and forging ahead in this brave new world.

Hector's team moves into sub- contracting for office builds, including some government work. It is John's idea, but Hector is amenable to it. It may not pay rates that are comparable with the worst excesses of the private sector, but the work is steady and reliable, and Hector does not appear to have the same appetite for innovation now that his hair has turned grey and he is a little thicker around the middle.

Davy was right all of those years ago - Hector rates John, listens to his suggestions where they make sense, and John is a creature of logic. His suggestions always make sense.

Davy has moved on - married now with two children and living on the east coast - but John still gets a Christmas card each year even though he does not send them back. But Hector still has an unerring instinct when it comes to those he puts on his team - in spite of all of their personal quirks, they work well together and they gain a reputation in the industry for good quality, cost-effective work.

Where one contractor comes, others follow. They do not lack for work, but more importantly it gives them access to security clearances that they may otherwise have lacked, meaning that when the main contractors for the new build of the Cyberdyne complex in San Francisco come knocking, it is to Hector's door.

There is a sense of pieces falling into place.

When Sarah Connor returns, he will be ready.

-o-

"You heard from Sarah?"

The question is unexpected - Hector seldom pries into this area of John's imaginary life.

The answer is clear, but still John hesitates to give it, weighing up the potential outcomes. Again, honesty would appear to be the most logical route, provided he is sufficiently vague. "No," he says. "But I am sure that I will see her soon."

It's 2011. Soon is still six years away

"So, you don't have any plans for Christmas?"

Davy has sent another Christmas card, and John carefully stands it up on the desk that is set up next to Hector's.

"I am doing the same as I do every Christmas."

"So, in other words, nothing."

John does not answer Hector; Hector does not always require an answer, and over the years John has learned that his silence will not cause offence where Hector is concerned.

The pictures on Hector's wall have changed over the years. There are new images now, of younger children, ones that still have something of Hector around the chin and eyes.

"How are the grandchildren?" he asks instead, because he has learned that that is a question that is expected of him.

"The grandkids are fine," Hector replies, a shrewd glint in his eyes. "And you're avoiding the question. Dammit, John. Are we going to do this dance every year? Because Rosa's getting to the point where she might just bypass me asking and drag you out of that apartment of yours herself."

That would be unfortunate; John has begun the process of stockpiling weapons in anticipation of Sarah Connor's arrival. While his main storage unit is located in an underground bunker near the Golden Gate Bridge, his apartment serves as a staging point prior to transfer.

He has no other need for it.

"Rosa does not need to drag me," he says, accepting that it would be more politic to finally agree to attend the Gonzalezes' Christmas festivities than to continue to rebuff them and risk exposure.

"Is that a yes?" Hector slams the palm of his hand into his chest, feigning surprise. "My God, if you continue to keep this up, I might start thinking that you like me."

John cycles through the available answers, finally settling on, "I like Rosa."

Hector laughs, and the sound is a happy one.

Even a thorough search of his databanks does not identify any instances when Sarah Connor has laughed like that.

Perhaps she finally will when Cyberdyne is destroyed.

-o-

Christmas at the Gonzalezes' is in line with his expectations, knowing both Hector and Rosa as he does. There is far too much food for the number of attendees, and many children running around, shrieking excitedly as they play with new toys that will probably be abandoned by New Year's Day. The alcohol flows freely, and there are loud, good-natured arguments about sports and loud, less good-natured arguments about politics until Rosa bans both subjects from the house.

John fits in better than he expected.

This will require further analysis to enable him to understand the reasons behind this.

-o-

The building of the Cyberdyne campus is completed in August 2014. The work that Hector's team completes comes in on time, under budget and with a few additions of John Wierzbowski's devising.

Hector's existence is terminated in April 2015, prior to the completion of their subsequent contract.

It is not, as John had expected, due to the incipient lung cancer that Hector had a 67% chance of developing even after Rosa had finally won the argument about his smoking. Instead it is a massive coronary event that takes place while Hector is asleep in bed, lying next to Rosa as he has for the last 42 years.

Rosa tells them all that Hector suffered no pain, that it was instantaneous, and that he didn't suffer. These are the comforting lies that John has learned that humans tell themselves.

There would have been pain, but she is correct in that it would have been short in duration. Hector would have been brain-dead within minutes.

John does not share this observation with Rosa or with any other members of Hector's family. It has occurred to him, observing the silence where once there was a lot of noise, voices competing for attention, all of them good-natured and affectionate, that while Hector may not have suffered, they are suffering in his stead.

He attends Hector's funeral. He does not understand the rationale behind the service, but he understands enough to know that it is expected of him.

He tells Rosa at the wake that he will complete this current work assignment for Hector, even though Hector will never see it, but that then he intends to retire, his services no longer required.

It is time to move on. Sarah Connor will arrive within two years, and John Wierzbowski's identity puts him at 68 years old - one year younger than Hector.

Rose's eyes are red, still wet from the tears she has shed in the church, but she nods as though she understands.

"You stay in touch," she insists, and there is an echo of the fierce and uncompromising Rosa that he knows in her words. "You're family, John, whether you want to be or not, and I know Hector..."

She does not complete her statement; her lip quivers and her voice loses definition. Her eyes continue to water, the liquid running down her face.

"You stay in touch," she says again instead, and John promises he will.

It is not a promise he can keep long-term, not past Sarah Connor's return, but if he tapers off his visits, perhaps his absence will not be noted.

Rosa has her grandchildren, after all.

-o-

He notes Hector Gonzalez's absence. There is a place where Hector used to be, a place he will never be again. It is an odd sensation, this nagging sense of incompletion, of something missing. It is one that he attributes to his ageing components.

But John Wierzbowski cannot dwell on the past, not when the future is looming.

He gives up his apartment, and instead builds a desk by the wall in the bunker he has stocked with weapons intended to destroy Skynet before it is born.

He pins the pictures of Sarah Connor that he has to the wall above it. They are faded now, the years washing out the colours.

2017 is coming, and he is still waiting.

-o-

2017 arrives, and he watches as Sarah Connor and Kyle Reese are escorted away from the arrival site, so near and yet, still a little too far.

That sense of absence, of something incomplete, fades, and his components adjust, forming a new sense of purpose.

But when the battle finally begins, it is not just Sarah Connor for whom he fights and whom he falls.

It's for this whole world, and the people in it.

The end