1. Raja Singh
John Connor's meetings with Kyle Reese aren't unusual; John often speaks privately with his soldiers. John asks about logistics or gives new orders. He says whatever he hopes will improve morale.
Kyle Reese is enthralled by the myth John has built of his mother, and most of the time John does what he can to encourage him. Sometimes, however, when John's repeating a story Kyle has heard many times before, or smoothing events into a more flattering portrait of Sarah Connor, John finds himself curious about Kyle's own family.
Kyle was taken by the machines when he was young, but he remembers a little of his parents. Kyle's mother was soft, nothing at all like Sarah Connor, but she survived longer than most in the face of their new reality. His father was the tallest man in the world. They told Kyle he'd once had a brother, although Kyle doesn't remember himself. His brother's name was Derek, and he had dark hair. Derek had been much older than Kyle, old enough to be left home while his parents had driven off on errands, had driven off to the end of the world.
John wonders what it would be like to have an uncle.
When John gives Raja Singh his orders, Raja wants an explanation. Raja always wants an explanation; in another universe, he would have been too smart to be a soldier.
"I trust you," John says, a half-truth kinder than the whole. Raja is competent but ultimately replaceable, and John can't spare anyone more valuable on a whim.
John tells Raja of two boys who must survive Judgment Day, whatever cost their savior must pay. He tells Raja about a machine that will let him travel backwards in time. He tells Raja that it's possible to step into a world where the skies are still blue, where the fields are not yet paved in bone, where his younger sisters still live.
It's too large a concept for Raja to believe easily. In the wasteland, hope is a swallowed knife, a sharp pain that bleeds from the inside.
"Why me?" Raja asks, finally.
"I never discuss strategy," John reminds him, and Raja quirks a grin, satisfied none of John's causes are empty.
2. Kyle Reese
When John Connor first meets Kyle Reese, he's thin and filthy from captivity. And he's smiling; John isn't sure he remembers how to, himself.
"He's so young," John says, wondering at his own surprise.
Derek gives him a harsh laugh. "There's no such thing as young anymore," he says.
But Kyle is young. He can take down a large man if he has to, or fight off a machine long enough to escape, or eat rations without complaining - and John knows that one's a challenge. But he's somehow remained innocent in the world after Judgement Day, soul untempered by the loss of everything he knows.
Well, almost everything.
John observes Derek interacting with his younger brother. He feels like a voyeur, but Derek's a lieutenant, so John's interest isn't out of place. Derek's protective of Kyle, more so even than of the soldiers in his unit - when Kyle's ready to join the resistance movement, John will have to be sure he's following someone other than Derek's commands.
Sometimes John thinks Kyle's freed to be human by the solid knowledge that there's someone beyond Kyle himself who cares that he exists. But mostly John decides that it's something innate about Kyle Reese; other siblings have passed through Judgment Day together, as hard and desperate as any survivors.
John would prefer, like anyone, to believe that his father is special.
Derek changes after they drag Kyle away from the machines. He's still effective in battle, but he lets himself relax slightly when he returns to the tunnels. He's more likely to argue for a cautious plan of action. Derek jokes, laughs when Kyle is around in a way he never did with John. Kyle has always been what Derek is fighting for. Now he's what Derek is living for as well.
Derek's loyal to his family even before the human race. John can appreciate that. The problem's that, as far as Derek knows, his family consists only of Kyle.
Eventually, John Connor knows, he sends Kyle Reese to 1984. John's existence is proof of the necessity. But only the destination point matters - John can send Kyle away from any time he chooses.
John decides it will be soon.
3. Jesse Flores
Derek Reese comes back to them broken. It's weeks before John can even ask him questions without triggering an episode of PTSD.
Derek hates the machines that imprisoned him, and he hates the man who tortured him, and, mostly, he hates himself for cracking, breaking, shattering into pieces that no longer fit together. He finally matches the rest of the world, he tells John, dark humour that John tries to take as a good sign, even after Derek takes out his gun and points it, experimentally, at his own brain.
Jesse Flores' self decided mission has nothing to do with chasing down Charles Fischer and making sure he'll never be able to hurt anyone in the first place. But John knows the temporal coordinates she's aiming towards, and he has a unique opinion of coincidence.
John believes deeply in coincidence. He believes in seeding it, sculpting it. Lining it up side by side until a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil and prevents Armageddon.
Perhaps Jesse believes she discovered John's time machine because she's just that good at what she does. Or she found willing confederates because she inspires just that much faith. Or she stole enough carefully rationed energy to send a human being decades into the past because John is just that careless.
It's important, John feels, that his agents have faith in themselves.
4. Derek Reese
Nothing but living tissue sustained by some form of nerves and a circulatory system can be transported to the past. This doesn't make it impossible to send notes back to yourself, but it makes it expensive.
The woman is gaunt, with sunken eyes and thin, broken hair. She's short, growth probably stunted by poor nutrition. John's starting to see signs of it in the children living in the tunnels. She might even be one of them.
She's looking around at John's filthy, collapsed world like it's something wondrous, touching the frayed, worn shirt he gave her like it's a fragile treasure. John supposes that's a warning in itself.
"Did you have something to tell me?" he asks her.
She stops looking around the tunnel room - furtive, desperate glances, like the structure might vanish if she's not observing. "Yes," she says. Her voice is surprisingly strong and clear. It must be why John will choose her; a message is only as good as its medium. "Derek Reese. Died April 19, 2032."
John swallows. "Do you understand why I needed to know?" he asks her.
She shrugs, more a twitch than a gesture, uncomprehending. Perhaps understanding will become as great a luxury as toilet paper.
John hands her a canteen of fresh water, which she grabs and drinks until the container is empty. If she could fight, John would have kept her for his own, future, purposes. But now John is responsible for her in this time, and no matter how desperate things might still become, supplies are not plentiful. He is mortgaging his own past.
"Thank you," John says.
Derek Reese has been angry, suspicious since his brother vanished. John's not sure if Derek's primarily mad at John or the world in general, but events are speeding up now. The war between humans and machines is heading towards a turning point. John has no time to account for Derek's increasing recklessness, even knowing, now, where it must end.
John Connor is skilled at navigating possibilities, but the only way to save Derek is to tell him what happened to Kyle Reese - or at least enough of the truth to satisfy him. It would, necessarily, mean making Derek too great a liability to send against the machines, but there are always missions to the past. Either way John's facing a future without the only piece of family he has left.
The question is when to send him.
John loved his mother, depended on her, learned from her, took comfort in her strength even when she was wasting away. But John also remembers being young - though he hadn't felt it at the time - and bitter at the tangle of timelines that prevented him from knowing the rest of his family, at least until the end of the world.
5. John Connor
"Come with me," he says, "if you want to live."
"The fuck," Derek Reese says. He leans in. "John?"
John Connor raises his eyebrows at Derek's surprise. He indicates with a tilt of his head that Derek should follow him down the sidewalk.
"You know there's a miniature version of you running around this city, right?" Derek says. John doesn't answer, and Derek spins in front of him. If he were anyone else, John'd be slammed against the nearest building right now, but there are some perks to being the saviour of mankind. "Seriously," Derek says, "what the fuck are you doing here. The future needs you."
"If it does," John says, "I can always return."
And here John grins lopsidedly. "Same way as the rest of the world," he says. "Second by second." He steps around Derek and continues walking.
Derek catches up. "I don't get it," he says.
"We've never been able to prevent Judgment Day," John explains, "but we've been pushing it back, a day, a month, a year at a time."
"Right," Derek says, watching John through the corner of his eyes a moment before continuing to scan the street for possible threats.
"Right," John says. "Well. Eventually, that sharp bordering line between past and future gets shoved to the other side of the present. My present, anyway."
"Does that mean we've won?"
"It means we're fighting a different type of war," John says. "More negotiation, less nuclear fallout." He looks seriously at Derek. "It's the only war I know, first hand. I'm not the John Connor you remember."
"But you remember me," Derek says.
"Well, yeah," John says. "And that mopey kid you warned me about? I remember him, too."
Derek nods at that, face set. "So why did you come back?"
"Pivot moments," John tells him. "Temporal theory. I could draw you a diagram if you're interested, but trust me that it's a busy few years. At least, that's what I scribbled on the requisition form."
"There is no unofficially," John says. "But I could use your help."
"And what about him?" Derek points a thumb back the way they came. "You. John. Doesn't he need my help?"
"No." John looks at Derek for a moment. "In a few hours, you and me, my mom and Cameron, we're going to rescue a little girl. Savannah Weaver. She's important."
"And? Do we save her?"
John nods. "Yeah. She'll be all right. But you won't."
Derek is quiet for a moment. Then he says, "It was going to happen sooner or later."
"That's a very fatalistic attitude," John says, "for someone whose nephew has a time machine."
For a minute they walk in silence, Derek mourning a version of himself who'll never now exist to be killed. It's always an awkward feeling, John knows.
"I could still go back," Derek says. "Skip the thing with the kid, maybe..."
"Yeah. You could," John says. "It would be easier for me - losing you hurt a lot, for a long time. But I know how everything ends, and we get it mostly right this time." Now John stops walking, waits for Derek to double back. "He doesn't need you to be his protector any more," John says. "But me... I could really use my best lieutenant back." He offers Derek his hand. Derek takes it, grip firm.
They continue walking. "So," Derek says, "are we just wandering aimlessly, or did you have a plan?"
"I never discuss strategy," John Connor says, and Derek shakes his head. He's spent many months with a version of John too young to build much strategy at all.
"Come on," John says. "Let's go save the world."