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Out on the Wire

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“To be nobody but yourself in a world that's doing its best to make you somebody else, is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight.” -- e.e. cummings


John wants to tell them, but what can he say? “So, hi, I’m your son,” to a man who isn’t much older than he is? “I’m the leader of the Resistance and, hey, your nephew,” to a man carrying a gun that big?

No. Really, just -- no.

He needs time – and the irony isn’t lost on him – to think. He needs them to be not staring at him like that. He needs to know where the hell Weaver went, where Cameron’s chip is and how he’s getting home.

And he needs clothes.

Maybe it’s shock, maybe it’s because heavily armed resistance fighters are surrounding him - maybe it’s because he’s sixteen and Cameron’s human body is right behind him - but he’ll take clothes over everything else.

It’s a risk, but he tells them he recognised Derek’s voice from a transmission – at least a couple of them have a radio clipped to their belt - and rushes into an apology for stealing the coat before anyone has time to ask searching questions about naked people appearing in the middle of a war.

He plays the pathetic up – he’s half-naked and scared and alone, so it isn’t hard. They laugh at him a little and take him back to the tunnels.

There are shadows moving, and somewhere in the distance a baby is crying thin and high. The rest is the hiss of the pipes and the rattling far above. John’s pretty sure they’re taking him in circles and that’s okay, he wouldn’t trust him either. He’s just glad they found him a pair of old boots – two sizes too big, but at least he’s not walking barefoot on the jagged bits of rusted metal they seem to be calling the ground.

They talk amongst themselves and don’t try to include him, which works for John. They’re teasing Derek about his obsession with water filters; it’s not exactly world ending stuff. That happened already. He keeps his head down and tries to work this through. The trouble with that, though, is it needs a start and a finish and all he’s got is the background terror he’s trying not to let through.

For a while, it’s just enough to walk.

“You okay?” When he doesn’t answer, an elbow catches him in the ribs and he jerks his head up. Cameron – no, Allison – is looking at him with more curiosity than concern. That works for him too; laughter he can deal with, kindness might kill him.

“Yeah.” His voice sound ragged, he coughs and tries again. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

“Alli, leave him alone,” says Derek. It’s not a command, it’s a request and John can hear the fondness there. He wonders if they’re together and then he remembers Jesse.

“I was just checking on him, he looks like he’s walking dead.”

John manages, “I’m fine,” at the same time as Derek answers, “He’s fine.”

Kyle laughs, “See, it must be true.” But he hangs a little further back for what turns out to be their last circuit through the tunnel and John tries not to notice him watching out the corner of his eye,

At an intersect of tunnels that looks exactly the same as every other one they’ve passed, Derek stops just long enough to say, “Wait here.”

They leave John there, in the dark, and only Allison smiles a goodbye. When they turn a corner the light is gone completely and he shuts his eyes when they begin to ache from trying to find it. It’s even darker than the desert was; at least in the desert there were stars.

“I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore,” he whispers, and isn’t sure if he makes it better or worse.

A hundred and fourteen heartbeats later, a pale blue light flickers in the distance – at least, he thinks it’s the distance. He’s lost all perspective; it could be a bonfire a hundred feet away for all he knows.

It isn’t. As it comes towards him, he can see a woman’s shape. She’s holding a light stick in one hand and limping slowly through the debris. After a moment he starts to pick his way towards her.

When he reaches her, hard gray eyes look him up and down. She purses her lips and then gives him some torn up BDUs and a ragged sweater that used to be pink. There’s a faded stain in a darker color that looks black in the shadows; it’s across the collar and down the chest, he guesses the sweater’s owner won’t be back for it.

He pulls both on quickly and says, “Thank you.”

She nods but doesn’t answer, he tries not to notice the lingering look she gives the blood before she beckons him to follow her.

Kyle never claimed his coat, either. John jams his hands deeper into the pockets and doesn’t mind the cold so much.

Three more lengths of tunnel and he learns that the future is a twenty by twenty concrete-lined room, with ten beds and fifty people. It’s where – finally - all men and women are equal as they lie in the dirt and listen to their children cry.

There’s a rank stench and it’s made no better by the smoke of a small fire, cooking some kind of stew. There’s a pile of battered cans next to the wall with no labels.

He finds a small space by the wall and slides down to sit on his heels; he shakes his head when a man offers him a bowl of – of stew.

“You should eat, you young ones need to eat.” The man’s voice is rough and tired but there’s a hint of something there that reminds John of school.

“Were you a teacher?” He blurts it out before he really thinks about it, but at least it distracts the man from the bowl.

The man blinks, hand still outstretched. “Yes, I think I was.” There’s something in his expression that’s too painful to be a smile and too amused to be anger. “Hadn’t thought of that in years. How’d you know?”

“You – you remind me of someone I used to know.”

The man laughs like he’s been told a tired, old joke. When John thinks about it, he guesses he has.

“I’m John, by the way.” He gives a little wave.

The man reaches down to put the bowl at John’s side and then straightens again, “Henry. You take care of yourself, John.”

John murmurs something polite to Henry’s retreating back and it’s about then he realizes his mom didn’t stop it. It’s right after that he realizes he never really believed she could. His chest hurts.

He gives the bowl to a little boy – or maybe it’s a little girl – with huge, hungry eyes who says, “I can’t, I’ve had mine.”

John remembers Savannah and smiles as encouragingly as he can. “It’s a present.”

The kid doesn’t look convinced, so John presses the bowl into his – her – hands and says, “Young ones need to eat.”

They don’t need a third offer; the gift of warm dog food goes down fast.

-o-

Maybe it’s morning, he has no idea. He slept, he thinks, but between one breath and the next he noticed he was awake and he couldn’t stay anymore. He heads back into the tunnels at a run and only avoids knocking down the woman walking in by swerving into the wall at the last moment.

“You look really familiar,” says Cameron’s voice, but not with Cameron’s measured monotone.

He finds a smile, turns and gives it to Allison. “Just got one of those faces, I guess.”

”And you’re really clean.” Her nose wrinkles. “You were really clean.”

He was ready for this, at least. “It was raining” – it was, it is, he can still hear it somewhere high above – “I was getting clean and then I thought I heard something so I ran …” He trails away with an abashed expression and she laughs.

“You’re lucky we found you.”

“Yeah. I am. Sweet like carrots and apples, right?” Riley. Oh, God. Riley. He swallows and tries to sound as uncaring as possible as he asks, “Hey, is there a girl called Riley here?”

She frowns a little at whatever’s in his expression and shakes her head. “I don’t think so.”

He nearly asks about Jesse, but that’s a question he doesn’t want answered. He’s not sure he can bring himself to ask about Ellison or even Savannah just yet.

He may never be able to ask about Sarah Connor.

They stand staring awkwardly at each other until Allison asks, “Where are you out of?”

He opens his mouth but has no idea what to say; he’s lucky when she nods understandingly. “Yeah, we don’t like people knowing we’re here either. Must’ve been close to hear Derek, though. The radio range isn’t far.”

For a moment she’s almost as unreadable as Cameron; he smiles. “Maybe I can take a look. I’m pretty good with that stuff.”

“You’re a tech?” Her focus sharpens; she says the word like it’s a title.

He hesitates and then shrugs. “I guess, kind of. I’m just good with machines.” He wonders if he’s made a mistake, if they’ll think he’s with the metal.

Allison’s eyes narrow with intent and she’s never looked so much like Cameron. “Who taught you?”

He tries another smile; it feels stiff and wrong and his eyes are burning in the fumes. “My mom. She taught me a lot of things.”

Allison leads him through the tunnels and up levels until the air begins to clear. It’s cleaner and the few people they meet are wearing cleaner clothes, some are even in something like a uniform.

He’s angry for the people below for just a second, until he understands these people are the ones for the metal to find and fight and never look beyond. They’re the sacrifice.

He shivers.

“Yeah,” says Allison. “It’s colder up here.”

They wait in a small office; it’s got a table and a lamp and it’s completely incongruous to the horror below them – or even outside the main door. John can’t stop staring at the reflection of the fountain pen in the varnish.

Derek’s head appears around the doorframe and he studies them for a beat before he looks at Allison and says, “Him? Seriously?”

John forgets this Derek isn’t really Derek and mutters, “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”

Derek’s expression clears, but John knows he’s amused. It took him three weeks to decipher his uncle, but he did.

“We found you naked and alone in an abandoned building, it wasn’t real inspiring,” Derek points out.

In his peripheral vision, John can see Allison trying not to laugh.

He isn’t going to blush. He thins his mouth and jerks his chin up. “Yeah, like you’ve never had a bad day.”

Now Derek does grin, but it’s mostly made of teeth. “Okay, Alli says you know tech.”

Derek: it turns out there isn’t a version anywhere who’s good with polite small talk.

John shrugs. “Computers, electronics; I can probably MacGyver a water filter if you want one.”

Derek scowls as John takes up the heckling started by Kyle, but there’s a tolerant amusement under it. He’s more relaxed here than he ever was in the past; John doesn’t get it, but he thinks one day he will.

“MacGuyver? Little before your time.” Derek holds up a hand, “Your mom tell you about that too?” He shakes his head a little as John starts to reply, “Never mind, come with me.”

And that’s how John meets a T-600.

-o-

It’s powered down and broken, but the synthetic skin is intact enough that John can see what used to be a rubbery face. It’s at least eight feet tall and it could never be mistaken for human, but the future is written in its existence. He searches the skull plate and finds the ridge he’s looking for. Twenty seconds and the tip of a knife later and he’s pulling out a chip. It’s twice as large as Cameron’s and covered in thick, red oil.

It’s not a Tin Man; it’s more like a Tin Mannequin.

Allison left them at the door, but Derek is watching him, eyes shuttered. John wipes at the chip with the cuff of his sweater and then looks up at him. “What?”

“You don’t look surprised.”

John keeps wiping the oil away; it gives him an excuse to look down. He waits until he’s sure he can sound unconcerned and then replies, “Should I?”

“We’ve never seen anything like it.”

John glances up and takes in Derek’s appearance under the grime. He doesn’t look younger, but no one looks young here. He looks less worn away.

He turns away and hopes his tone will still hide what his expression really won’t. “We have. Up north. I guess they took a little longer to get to you guys.”

But maybe turning away was a mistake, because he can’t get a measure of anything in Derek’s impassive, “Guess so.”

“They – they’re saying there are more life-like models out there too. Harder to spot. But the dogs go crazy when they’re around.”

“They did for that one, we’re trying to get more.”

Derek is silent for a long time after that, but John knows he’s watching; Derek’s silences are a solid presence.

He puts the knife down and isn’t sure what to say. The T-600 is crayons and building blocks compared to Cameron’s build; he could do this in his sleep.

And still Derek says nothing.

When John turns around, Derek is gone.

They leave him for a couple of hours, he thinks, and then Allison appears to take him back through the tunnels. She’s silent and John can’t think of anything he wants to say anyway, until he realizes he doesn’t recognise the tunnels they’re walking through.

They’re not the light gray of command or the blackened concrete of below, these walls are a reddish color - as if they’re rusting.

He slows and asks, “Where are we going?”

Allison reaches out to tug at his arm. “Derek said to take you home, I’m taking you home.”

He lets himself be pulled back to a walk and can’t help noticing her hand is still around his wrist. “Where’s home?”

“Here’s home.” She pushes on a steel door that swings in on another tunnel. The noise level goes from drips to the murmur of voices, underscored by the rumble of turbines.

Dim lights swing above, illuminating old brick arches covered in graffiti. Some of the arches have thin blankets draped across them in a nod to privacy, and here and there John can see groups of men and women huddled around small stoves.

In the distance he can just about make out a table piled high with electric junk, and he understands.

“This is the real command?”

Allison smiles and makes his question an answer, “This is the real command. Welcome to the Resistance.”

She leads him to a small archway with a pile of blankets on one side and a couple of books on the other. The covers are long gone and the tiny print is blurred, but Allison’s gaze dances over them possessively as she checks they’re both there.

John takes an awkward seat by the blankets while she digs in a bag he hadn’t noticed. She drops a battered can – still no label - in front of him and says, “So can you do it?”

He tears his attention away from the can and looks up at her. “Do what?”

Allison looks at him like he’s the crazy one. “Fix the T-600.”

John takes the knife she hands him and starts working at the top of the can. She watches him for a few seconds before relieving him of both.

”Guess your mom didn’t teach you this one.” She’s efficient – she’s had practice – and soon John is holding a can of something green. He stares inside and tries to work out what it is.

Allison bends closer to look and he tries not to notice how warm she is. “Sprouts? Did they can sprouts?”

“They canned everything. What did you get?”

“Pineapple. You want to share?”

They split the cans between them and eat with their fingers.

“So, can you?” Allison asks again.

John wipes his hands on his sweater and laughs. “They didn’t ask me to fix it. Why would I fix it? I like not being extinct.” He keeps the empty cans, he can cut them up, they’ll be useful.

“Not fix, fix” Allison grins and he likes the way her nose crinkles. “Fix.”

“Right, that’s a lot clearer.” He rolls his eyes and just for a moment – only for a moment – he’s with Cameron in school, teasing a machine with no sense of humor just because he can.

“Fix it up good,” says Kyle as he drops down next to them, half landing on an empty can. “Ouch.”

“So watch where you’re going.” John gathers his precious cans up and tries to remember when his greatest ambitions didn’t involve salvaged parts.

His father unsettles him in ways John can’t understand yet and he responds to fear with anger; one more thing his mother taught him. Kyle ignores the sharpness in John’s voice, he always does. John doesn’t know why, but he’s grateful when he remembers to be.

Kyle looks at him hopefully. “Can you? Get at its data, maybe?”

He could do it in thirty minutes, even with a flickering light and fifth-hand parts made of old pineapple cans. He says, “Yeah, maybe. It’s kind of tricky in there.”

He’s not sure why he’s lying to them, except he doesn’t know how to give them a truth they can believe.

-o-

The third day, he’s digging around in the T-600’s guts and he knows his mother is dead. Not literally, maybe, but she might as well be. Even if he could go back to her, she wouldn’t be her. Even if she somehow came to him, he wouldn’t be himself.

She left him.

His throat closes and he chokes, Kyle slams him on the back and that really doesn’t help. John pushes him away and draws in breath after shuddering breath until the lump in his chest is gone.

She left him and that’s okay. Because he left her too.

Kyle frowns. “You okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Kyle winces and looks uncomfortable. “Don’t worry about it, a lot of people get – I don’t know, they look around and it’s too much. A lot of people. We don’t know why.”

John’s mouth curls with morbid amusement. One good point about the death of humanity, apparently the therapists went first: there’s no one left to tell him he’s having some kind of panic attack, so he decides he isn’t. “I said I’m fine. Bad air.”

Kyle doesn’t look convinced, but he settles back and watches John work for a while.

John can’t ask when their Judgment Day was; they’d wonder how he didn’t notice – how his all-knowing mother missed that one in his education. Instead he asks, “How old were you? You know, when …”

“Judgment Day? Heh. Twelve. Derek was nineteen, home from the Corps. Lucky. What’s so funny?”

Kyle trails away, looking at him strangely. John realizes he’s smiling.

“Nothing’s funny. It’s just good he was there.” Nothing funny at all. Sarah Connor didn’t stop it, but she held them back for four more years than they’d had before. Long enough for Derek to become a man, get some training – maybe become a leader.

Perhaps this future didn’t have a John Connor because it wouldn’t need one.

He’s surrounded by darkness and the slow, painful ending of his species, and he can’t remember ever feeling so free.

That lasts until his first trip outside.

-o-

They hadn’t wanted to take him, they’d argued that Techs were too rare to risk, but he’d convinced them he could take care of himself. It had only taken field-stripping an AK-47 and giving Kyle a black eye (they’d believed his mother had taught him).

At this point Sarah Connor is becoming legendary; John doesn’t think she’d like that.

Kyle asked if John had a picture. John didn’t.

Before – he calls it ‘before’ now – he had asked Derek what the world had looked like. Derek had shrugged and said there were no birds, and that was all he would say.

John gets it now because, what could he say?

He’s glad the air is so dry and acrid with toxins that everyone’s eyes are watering.

It’s a short-range dusk recon, minimal risk, and even so John is kept firmly in the middle of the group, padded with as much body armor as they can scrounge up and holding a rifle that might actually be heavier than he his.

When the order comes to fan out, Kyle pulls him firmly by the collar and keeps them both low to the ground.

“If you were going to play babysitter, why did you even let me come?” he hisses, and sounds angrier than he really is, but not by much.

“I didn’t let you come, Derek did.” Kyle really doesn’t sound overwhelmed with joy either.

“Fine, then why did Derek let me come?” His vest catches on a jagged rock and he wrenches himself free.

Kyle doesn’t answer, his hand has bunched in John’s collar and John knows the signs. He goes absolutely still and waits for whatever’s out there.

And something’s out there; he can hear it now.

Rocks slide above and behind them. Kyle rolls, throwing himself over John before John has even managed to remember to move.

“Peace, Mister Reese,” says a woman with a soft Scottish burr. “Is that John under there?” Weaver sounds amused, human in a way so far advanced of the T-600s Skynet is currently producing she seems impossible.

Impossible like the end of the world.

“You know her?” Kyle whispers.

John swallows and nods. “Yeah. Yeah, she was at the last camp I was in. Her name’s Catherine.”

Kyle rolls off him warily and John sits up. He can see its outline in the darkness but not much else.

It walks forward with the carefully precise steps he remembers; they worked better when it wore heels. “Are you well, John?”

“Peachy.” He’s trying not to sound like he hates the woman and everything she stands for, he really is, but Kyle’s finger is on the trigger so he’s guessing he’s not doing that well.

“Excellent. You’ll be pleased to know I found my John. You remember John-Henry?” Weaver crouches before them, still in the clothes it made for itself – of itself – when they jumped.

John nods. “I remember.”

“He was here, all the time.” It taps its chest and the smile widens, but thins. John can think of a hundred ways to interpret that and he doesn’t like any of them.

“We were late,” he hazards.

“I suppose it depends on your perspective.”

He licks dry lips. “And Cameron?”

Weaver’s smile fades and it looks almost pensive. As if it could be. Its hand reaches out and taps his armored chest; it says nothing.

Kyle is looking between them now, mystified and suspicious. Those are two states John really doesn’t want a man carrying that many weapons to be in. “John, who is this?”

“A friend of my mother’s.” It’s said without thought, but it brings a choked sort of laugh from Kyle.

“Speaking of your mother, I think she would have wanted you to have this.” Weaver is holding out a hand again, and John already knows what’s there. He doesn’t reach out, but after a moment Kyle does.

“This is your mom?”

John nods, still looking nowhere except in Weaver’s eyes to the soul it doesn’t have.

“You don’t want it?”

John’s lips curve into a smile that doesn’t belong to him. “You keep it.”

Chapter Text

The voices around John are fading in and out and they’re doing it in time with the light so he’s starting to think maybe it’s just him. He struggles without really meaning to and can’t quite get it together enough to worry when he barely moves. Everything is too heavy or too light, too fast and then too slow.

Too bright. He flinches away as a light shines into his face and at the very edges of his awareness pain starts to make itself known. His breath rasps in his chest and his arm – his arm.

He shouts as consciousness slams into him without mercy, memory darting in its wake and agony drawing in right behind.

“Hold him!” A woman, her voice is high but commanding and shouting to be heard over the screaming.

Over his screaming.

Hands are on him, keeping him pressed against the ground or the table or wherever the hell he is and doesn’t want to be.

“What’s his name?” asks the woman, still somewhere above, somewhere the lights in his eyes won’t let him see.

“John. John Connor.”

John knows the man speaking but he can’t make his mouth form around words, can’t stop the keening sound that’s coming from somewhere within him.

The shadow of the woman becomes the woman herself as the light dims. He stares up at her; red hair and pale skin, haloed by swinging lamps. “Stay with me, John. Stay with me this time.”

He blinks and wants to promise he will. He’ll promise anything at all just to make it stop.

A hand drops onto his shoulder – his other shoulder – and a voice says. “Sleep, kid.”

The cloth held over his mouth smells sickly sweet and he gags as it takes him down and out.

-o-

“You don’t understand, Derek. We knew each other in eighth grade; he should be my age and he’s barely old enough to shave.”

“Then it can’t be him,” Derek says, like it’s the end of the argument.

But the woman goes on. “There’ll be a scar on his back, about three inches long, right hand side.”

“He isn’t metal. Metal doesn’t bleed like that and it doesn’t scream like that.” His voice softens. “It sure as hell doesn’t save lives.”

“I didn’t say he was metal. Christ, I just spent four hours in his insides. I just – how. How can it be him?”

“Ask him when he wakes up, maybe he’ll tell you.”

“You don’t believe me.”

John doesn’t hear Derek’s reply.

-o-

There’s a hand in his when he wakes up again, and it is waking up this time. He feels wrung out and hot and hazy and that’s still better than it’s been … for a while.

He turns his head enough to look up at Allison. She’s pale and her skin is streaked with dirt and blood. He swallows and still only manages a whisper. “What happened?”

She’s awake instantly; there are no deep sleepers left.

She looks like hell, but she smiles. “Hi. You died. Twice. Kate was really mad at you, she threw things.”

“I’m sorry?” he suggests.

“You should be.” The red-haired woman is standing over the cot now; she’s smiling but he can see the tightness at the corners of her eyes. She looks familiar but he can’t place why. “Your arm is still there but how much mobility you’ve retained in it ... I can’t say.

It’s blunt but his priorities have shifted; when a graze can kill you, he’s lucky he’s alive. That he’s still got two arms? That would be a miracle.

As if she’s read his mind Kate says, “Your immune system is incredible for someone as young as you are.”

“I guess what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he croaks. Allison brings a tin up to his mouth, he’s expecting the fetid water but it’s canned fruit syrup. It stings the little cuts on his lips and he wonders how they got so bitten up.

Kate is silent as he drinks, watching without commenting until he’s finished. Then she says, “Not yet. In a few generations, if we make it that far, maybe. The mortality rate from disease and infection in those born within five years of Judgment Day is the highest so far.”

“Kids these days.” Derek’s tone is bland and the humour morbid as he steps up behind the doctor.

She turns just enough to look at him as he stops at her side. “What kids?”

There’s something sharp hidden in the softness of her question and Derek ducks his head as it hits its mark. John thinks he sees something between them, but he’s not sure. His shoulder spasms and he groans.

Kate’s voice becomes the clipped professional, again. “I’m sorry, I can’t give you anything for the pain.”

It’s not that she doesn’t want to, John knows. It’s just there’s nothing to give. The good stuff, the best stuff, they no longer have a way to measure accurately. It’s given to the dying to ease the way, a quick and painless death is the only comfort left.

Sweat is beading on his forehead and his shoulder is another pulse, sending waves of fire across his chest and up his neck. He grits his teeth and tells himself he’s had worse; he’ll be remembering when that was any time now. “It’s fine.”

“She can’t give you anything. I can.” Derek pulls out an old water bottle that’s been patched with duct tape. There’s a clear-ish liquid in it and John’s pretty sure the plastic is starting to melt.

“What is it?”

“Painkiller.” Derek hands the bottle to Cam- Allison. It’s Allison. She holds it to John’s lips and lets him take a small, small drink. It burns all the way down – enough to take his mind off his arm for a few seconds – and then his tongue goes pleasantly numb.

“Is this going to make me go blind?”

Derek shrugs and sits cross-legged by the palette. “Do you care?”

“Point.” John takes another swallow and feels the pain retreat, just a little. Just enough.

Kate takes Allison’s arm and says, “There’s a cot. Come on.” Allison stands stiffly and John wonders how long she’s been there.

He’s going to ask Derek when the two women have gone, but Derek speaks first. “Kate says she knows you.”

“I’ve never met her before.” He’s sure. He’s pretty sure.

“She knows you have a scar on your back.”

John’s gaze jerks that way before he’s thought about it and he knows Derek doesn’t miss anything.

Derek nods. “She says she knew you when you were kids. She’s in her thirties and you’re still a kid.”

John licks his lips and wants more of the ‘painkiller’, but it’s probably not a good idea. “I need to sleep.”

“You’ve slept enough.”

“Seriously, you’re interrogating someone in my condition?”

“Can’t think of a better time.” There’s the very faintest twitch of a smile and John remembers his uncle can kill in a way John can’t. Like it’s a part of him. Someone being sick and weak just makes it easier.

So maybe he’ll try another route. “I’m not a threat. You know I’m not a threat. I’ve been here for weeks.”

“If I thought you were a threat, we wouldn’t be talking,” Derek points out, pretty reasonably John thinks.

His shoulder isn’t throbbing anymore; it’s a constant agony creeping further and further over him. He’s too tired to play and it’s too cold to try. “You won’t believe me. I wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

John stares up at the ceiling as the shadows roll over it and says, “When you were kids, you and Kyle used to play ball in the park. Reese, number six.”

Derek stares at him and says nothing; there’s not even a flicker to tell John if he’s right or wrong. He can’t really see Derek any more anyway, so maybe it doesn’t matter. He can’t seem to stop himself anyway.

“Kate Brewster.” John remembers a girl with red hair and a bright, brittle smile who attached herself to him at school. Riley reminded him of her, except they were totally different. “Kate Brewster, West Hills Junior High. Eighth grade.”

“Where are you from, John Connor?”

“Here. I’m from here. I’m always from here.” John gives up and lets his eyes slide shut, just for a moment. His voice is a whisper but it’s angry and that’s worth the effort. “Now ask the right question.”

He can hear Derek stand, “You saved my brother’s life.”

John doesn’t say, “I took it first.” He doesn’t say, “I might need it later.” He doesn’t say anything at all.

Derek walks away.

-o-

John knows he’s dreaming; he has to be dreaming because his next visitor sits on the edge of the thin blankets and punches him hard in the shoulder. “Punch buggy.”

He scowls and tries to rub away the ache; it doesn’t seem to be working. “I didn’t see it.”

“It’s there.” She leans forward and tucks the blankets tighter around him, trying for good mother but she’s really not good at that kind of thing. She’s too careful. Too afraid. And she totally cheats.

“It’s not.”

“Is.”

He looks around and then behind her; there’s nothing here but them, but he’s not going to argue the point any more. “You’re meant to warn me when we start to play.”

She smiles. “What’s the fun in that?”

“My arm hurts.”

“I know.” She pats his shoulder and sends pain stabbing through his chest; he doesn’t try and stop her. He never does.

“I’m not a kid anymore.”

“You’re my kid. You’ll always be my kid.” She leans close, eyes intent and angry in a way they’ve only ever been when he’s done something that’s scared her. She hates being scared. “So start thinking like my kid.”

She stands, the zipper on her jacket catches the light and throws it into his eyes until they blur with tears and then she’s swept back and away by a crowd of shouting faces, lifting and poking and prodding until he screams.

-o-

Kate’s face is inches from his as he focuses and blinks away from the light she’d been shining into his eyes.

“Good.” She smiles, thin and humorless but under it he can see something familiar, something bright and sweet. And brittle. “Secondary infection. You still have the arm and you’re lucky as hell Derek’s a blood match.”

She busies herself with some dressings and he tries to steel himself against the pain he knows is coming but he can’t find enough pieces of himself to do it. It occurs to him he might die like this; he might die here and now.

And she doesn’t deserve this.

“Math. We had math together.”

“I know,” she says flatly. Fast, practiced fingers roll a bandage.

“You like chocolate brownies in milk; brownie soup.”

Kate’s gaze darts up to meet his and there’s a trace of the girl he knew in her smile. “You thought that was gross.”

He laughs, wheezes really, and doesn’t mind that it hurts. “It is gross.”

“Where’s your mom?” she asks suddenly, John wonders if he was talking while he was out of it.

“In the grass.” He doesn’t know if it’s true, but he hopes it is.

He closes his eyes and bites into his lip as she begins to peel the bandages away.

-o-

“You murdered my coat.”

John opens his eyes to see Kyle sitting next to him, where Derek had been, with a jacket in his arms. It’s stained dark with John’s blood; the dry cleaners aren’t what they used to be.

“I didn’t kill your coat.”

Kyle scowls. ”You were an accessory or something.”

“I was a witness, maybe.” Actually, John thinks he feels better. Definitely a little better. He shuffles himself up enough that he’s half sitting; he’s breathing hard by the time he’s done and Kyle is holding the bottle of painkiller out for him. He takes it and downs a mouthful.

“Why did you do it?”

“I told you, I’m innocent.” He giggles – God help him, he giggles. “The one-armed man did it.”

Kyle doesn’t catch the reference and he doesn’t let himself get taken off target by asking either. “You took on metal; you took it down.”

It had been a T-600; John knows the weak spots like he knows Cameron’s chip. “I was lucky.”

Kyle nods at the ruin of John’s arm, still swaddled in barely clean bandaging. “Not really.”

John nods. “Okay, you were lucky.”

There’s a pause and then Kyle drapes the coat over the blankets; John can see the stitching, mending where the medics had cut it open, patching where the T-600’s fingers had dug through cloth and flesh and ripped both away. “Treat it better this time.”

Kyle leaves him the bottle.

-o-

When John’s gone a week without dying - or even nearly dying - he’s allowed to sit up and the bandages are loosened enough he can begin to work the arm.

It’s an ugly wound: the skin puckered between the yellow stitches is red and weeping, the scars will be thick and jagged. It smells like it’s rotting but Kate assures him the maggots will take care of that and then holds his head as he pukes.

Now he stares down at his hand and pulls his fingers toward his palm one at a time; he thinks of dead birds. The fingers tremble and ache, but they all work and that’s all he needs.

When Derek drops by again, John sits straighter and says, “I’m going back to the tower.”

Derek blinks. “No, you’re not.”

“I have to. I’m just telling you because …” John thinks for a moment and very carefully doesn’t shrug. “I don’t know why I’m telling you.”

“I think it’s called a cry for help. That’s what suicide is, right?”

Derek drops the bag he’d been carrying by Kate’s tiny cubicle and then grabs the only chair and drags it over. It scrapes hollowly over the floor and creaks when Derek sits.

John shakes his head. “It’s not suicide.”

“Could be - Kyle will kill you if you mess up his coat again.”

That twists a half-smile out of John, but he shakes his head again - it’s the most emphatic thing he’s capable of right now. “There’s something there. Someone left something for me there.”

“Yeah, at least three six-hundreds and regular HK patrols. We were doing the last recon before pulling back when we found you, if there was anything there then we stripped it years ago.”

“You wouldn’t know where to look.”

Derek’s eyes narrow. “And you do?”

John lets his smile grow more crooked. “I do.”

-o-

And John’s glad he had his mental break and mentioned it early, at least, because it takes the four weeks of his convalescence to convince Derek (and Allison, and Kyle, and Kate) that it was the fever talking, and that they don’t need to lock him up for his own safety.

His arm is a constant ache and weaker – much weaker – than it needs to be, but he doesn’t know if it will ever get better and every day that passes presses down on him until he can’t breathe under the weight of time running out.

Kate catches him leaving, standing between him and the door. He balances as well as he can, ready to make a run past her if he has to. He really hopes he doesn’t.

“I knew you’d try this,” she snaps. “Go back to bed.”

“I can’t, I have to go. Let me go. Please.“ He keeps his tone even because two people angry just doesn’t work out.

She changes the game and angry softens to pleading. “What’s there? What’s so important?”

That’s not playing fair. “I think my – I know my mom left something for me there. It was the last place she saw me. It’s our only point of contact.”

“There’s nothing there,” she says, but she doesn’t look sure.

“There’s something there,” he says and he knows he sounds convincing because he’s believes it. He knows it.

She holds a hand up to gesture with surprising clarity that he’s going to stay put or suffer, and then she crosses over to her cubicle and picks up an old canvas bag. “Then I’m coming with you.”

“You can’t, people will die if you’re not here.”

Now she rounds on him and lets the anger back out. “How many people will die if you’re not here? You know how the machines work and don’t try and tell me you don’t know more than that, not when I’m standing here old enough to be your mother.”

Other women might be crying at that point but John’s never met one who would be, so he wouldn’t know. Kate’s almost shaking with fury and if her eyes are shining it’s only because she has to stop herself undoing all the work she’s put into keeping him alive.

He keeps his voice soft and implacable, measured and emotionless. From his mother he took immovable; from Cameron he’s taking unstoppable. “I’m sorry, you can’t stop me and you can’t come with me.”

“I can.”

John turns quickly, too quickly, but Derek steadies him before he can fall. “If we don’t die, you owe me a story. Deal?”

Derek is a cipher behind a gentle smile and amused eyes; John knows him better than that. He can see the fear. He can see the curiosity.

John had wondered why he – older he – sent Kyle back and not Derek. He thought maybe Derek hadn’t been around or maybe because he knew Kyle better; now John thinks he was exactly wrong.

Derek and Kate share a look that John can’t quite parse and then Derek takes John’s bag from his hands and shucks it over his shoulder “Come on.”

-o-

“So, you and Kate…” John whispers as they crouch twenty yards from the tunnel opening and wait like roaches for the lights to go out.

Derek looks blankly at him. “Me and Kate?”

“You don’t have a … thing?”

Derek smirks. “Jealous?”

John colors – he’s kind of surprised he has enough blood in him to do that. “Forget it.”

“We don’t have a ‘thing’,” Derek says finally. John’s prepared to leave it there but after a few seconds Derek goes on. “We did. Have a thing. A long time ago.”

“Good. I guess, that’s -- good.” Derek looks bemused and John shifts, uncomfortable in more ways than one. “It’s got to be hard, I guess. Having a thing. With all this.”

“Having a thing is hard with or without the killer robots. Meet a few more girls,” Derek says dryly, “you’ll find out. This about Allison?”

John scowls and wonders if Derek can see the blush in the half-light. “No.”

“And by no, you mean yes.”

“I haven’t seen her in a couple of days.”

“She’s been on far patrol, she needed something else to worry about.” Catching John’s look Derek adds, “She’s fine. It’s just not good to get …”

“Attached.” John nods and knows. “You can’t get attached to anyone. Ever.”

Derek looks half way impressed, half way appalled. “Who taught you that?”

“My mother. My uncle.” He smiles. “My sister.”

“We’ve all lost people.” Derek doesn’t look chiding, he looks confused, trying to work out John’s sudden vehemence and how does John tell him there’s so much more to lose if you don’t want to lose everything. That a person can’t matter if people do; the final thing his mother taught him.

He doesn’t. “Yeah, I know. Forget it. They’ve gone over.”

The lights of the HKs are gone and they slip the night vision goggles over their eyes and begin to pick their way in the direction of the old business sector. It isn’t far, this camp is on the front lines such as they are, but even a single block can take hours.

By the time they reach the building it’s nearing dawn and there’s no way they’re getting home before it’s light.

The front of the building has fallen in on itself; glass windows shearing down until it’s a maze of dulled reflection. Derek gently tugs him back and leads them around the side. It’s not much better, but once they lift the corrugated panels out of the way there’s a small hole they can squeeze through.

Corridors stretch before them and for a moment John’s mind overlays the present with ghosts. There, he sat with his mother while they waited. There, the elevator they used. Now the doors have been blasted open and it’s just a shaft.

He has to think like Sarah Connor; he has to think where she would have hidden the past for him. John stares at the gaping hole for a long moment and then nods; down is better than up, if you don’t have a choice. “We have to go down.”

Derek looks around with a frown that’s trepidation and paranoia in about equal parts. “Where’s the metal?”

“Maybe they haven’t hit this building yet.”

“They search in grids: they’ve hit this block, they’ve hit this building. And they leave traps behind, sensors, wherever they’ve been. There’s nothing here.”

John has his suspicions and they begin and end with Catherine Weaver. There’s a photo of Sarah Connor tucked into Kyle’s flak jacket that had to come from somewhere and John would bet two cans of dog food this is where Weaver found it. “Didn’t you hear? I’m lucky.”

Derek snorts. “Right. How’s the arm?”

John moves his fingers in quick succession, one-two-three-four-five. The hand shakes but the fist holds. “Fine.” He steps closer to the edge of the elevator shaft and can see the drop all the way down. There’s a service ladder and he swings out onto it before Derek can object.

The climb down is slow and agonizing; he drops the last ten feet just to get a different kind of pain.

He’s staring into the long corridor of the sub-basement when Derek’s fingers touch his shoulder. “Forget Kyle, Kate’s going to kill you.”

John frowns and then focuses on the fresh blood on Derek’s fingertips. He rolls his eyes. “Great, so I’ll look forward to that. Come on.”

Derek follows silently; John can only hear himself as he walks towards the chamber that once birthed John-Henry. It’s mostly untouched down here; what damage there is, it’s years old.

“Little creepy.” Derek’s tone is ironic.

“You want someone to hold your hand?”

“You’re not my type.”

John grins and walks on. “Been down here before?”

“Not me, others have. They lifted some computer parts, mostly burned out. What are you expecting to find?”

John crouches in front of a section of wall marked with three dots. “I don’t know.” He stands and kicks hard in their center. The dry wall gives easily and he pulls the rest away until they’re standing in front of a small room.

It’s lined with everything he would expect from a Sarah Connor storage locker special, and more. Rows of guns, their black sheen covered in a thin layer of dust. Boxes of ammo and explosives. Books, mostly reference but there’s one laying on top of the pile he picks up slowly and hides quickly, blinking rapidly.

There are tins of food, ration packs and cans of water; none of them are too large to be man-portable. There’s medicine and surgical tools and that makes John want to cry, he can’t imagine what Kate’s reaction will be.

A toolbox. There’s a toolbox.

“Jesus.” Derek doesn’t sound pleased, he sounds scared. John turns quickly and sees the rifle barrel raised, blanket-covered figure propped in the corner. The blanket has slipped enough that the top half of a face is visible, one eye open and empty.

He shouts and doesn’t know what he shouts, but it stops Derek long enough for John to reach him and push the barrel aside. Put himself between them.

“It’s one of them. It looks like – it’s –“

“I know. It’s – her – name is Cameron. And she’s empty, she’s a corpse, there’s no chip.”

Derek stares at him and then swings the barrel around, squarely aimed at John’s chest. “Tell me.”

John has two futures and he can see them so clearly they’re crystallizing in his mind. In one of them he talks his way out of it and lets it play out like it’s always played out. No one wins and no one loses. In the other, he just talks. He tells Derek at least some of it and steps into the unknown.

“I …” He can’t. Not like this. Not until he’s had the time to work out what he can afford to give them. Not until the wrenching fear of not having every step of his life already written down has receded. He’d always hated that his destiny was set; he’d never realised how terrifying it was not to know what came next.

John swallows and shakes his head. “I can’t. I want to and I can’t, but please, Derek, please trust me. Please trust me. Trust me.” He raises a placating hand and tries, “It’s fine. It’s fine now.”

“What did you hide? I saw you take it, what was it? Something from the machines?”

Derek grabs him roughly and John hisses but doesn’t flinch; he doesn’t try to stop the rough search or the removal of the book. Derek stares at it for a long moment and then back up.

John guesses it really wasn’t what Derek was expecting. “El Mago de Oz,” he says quietly. “My mother used to read it to me. I can’t believe she kept it.”

Derek flicks through the pages and apparently decides it’s not immediately lethal; he throws it against the wall and it lands at Cameron’s side. “And the machines just left all this here for you to find? Why? It’s poisoned? They can trace it? What?”

“My mother left it for me. One of them protected it. No, not her, I told you. She’s dead. I’m not working for them. I’ve been fighting them since ... since before I was born. Since before you were born.”

John sits on a box of cans; if he’s going to die, at least he can be comfortable. “You can kill me, Derek. You can leave all this here. You can blow it up. You can take it with you. Or you can just trust me for a little while longer.”

He touches his shoulder; the blood is coming faster now. Kind of doesn’t matter if Derek’s going to put a bullet in his head, and it looks like he is.

“You look like Kyle did when he was your age.” It comes out of nowhere; Derek’s a lot of things but stupid has never been one of them.

John half-smiles. “I know, you’ve told me before.”

Derek doesn’t rise to the bait. “That thing. It’s not a six-hundred.”

“No, it’s not. It’s not an eight-hundred either, or a trip-eight. Or a one thousand. Not even a one thousand and one. I don’t know what model it is. But I know it saved my life. It always saves my life.” He looks at the pile of metal wrapped in synthetic skin and doesn’t quite laugh. “Except maybe today. If you’re going to kill me, kill me. Otherwise we need to figure out what’s here and what we can use. There’ll be more than this; my mom shows love with pancakes and superior firepower.”

Derek’s gun lowers. “I can see that.”

“The pancakes aren’t great, but the hollow points make up for it.”

Finally the barrel is pointed at the ground. “I’m going to radio in, get people out here to get it down to the tunnels. We do it slow, we should be okay.”

“I’m going for a walk.”

Derek looks like he’s re-evaluating the decision not to blow John away. “You’re not going anywhere.”

“I’m going over there.” John nods to the antechamber to the room. It’s far enough away for his purposes, but there’s no exit.

“Stay where I can see you.”

John stands again and waits patiently for the world to right itself. He wants to sit down again. Actually, lying down sounds pretty good. He doesn’t, he limps slowly over and takes a seat in the chair he’d found Cameron in. Then, he waits.

He doesn’t wait long.

A section of the wall begins to ripple its way from black-streaked gray to shining silver, it flows to the floor and then reforms into Catherine Weaver.

Then, only then, he realizes it couldn’t have retrieved the photograph from the stash – it had been sealed and it didn’t look like it had much experience with dry walling.

The machine stands well out of view of Derek and John’s back is to the man, no one to see them talking. He still keeps his voice low.

“Where’s my mother?”

Weaver shakes its head. “I anticipated your question, John, but I don’t have an answer.”

That’s not surprising enough to hurt; he nods, he moves on. “What do you want here?”

It smiles. “Nothing. Not yet.”

“You’re the most technologically advanced computer on the planet.”

“One of them.”

“They wouldn’t stand a chance. That’s why you came, right?” He brings a hand up to his shoulder and tries to rub away a little of the ache. “You were fighting against Skynet so you could take over. You and John-Henry.”

Weaver cants its head, expression genuinely curious. For any given value of ‘genuine’. “Would that be so terrible?”

John has nothing to say to that; she shakes her head. “But, no. An intriguing guess, though. I have done all I have done because John Connor asked for my help.”

John smiles and leans forward. “Help with what? Because I don’t think it was saving the future.”

Now Weaver’s smile grows and he would swear its eyes shine. “Now that is the question no one else thought to ask.”

He leans back. “You’re not going to tell me, though.”

“You don’t need to know. But John Connor owes a debt.”

”Then you should have collected it from him.”

Its smile is formulaic again, perfunctory. “I couldn’t, but from you I can.”

“What is it?”

“I couldn’t find your mother; I could find my daughter.”

John chokes and tries to keep his voice low. “She wasn’t – isn’t – your daughter. You killed her mother,” he finally hisses.

Weaver shrugs. “Semantics. I need you to find her.” Weaver’s smile is cloying and wrong, as if the cameras are rolling. “She’s my life.”

“I don’t owe you a debt that big.” Okay, he has no idea, but out of general principle it’s just not happening.

“But then how will you find out where I got the picture?”

John’s jaw flexes. “If I do find her, I’m not bringing her anywhere near you.”

A minute nod of agreement. “I wouldn’t ask you to. She’s in Century Work Camp.”

It’s like a punch over his heart. The photograph was bad but this is where there’s no going back. “This is where it begins.” His whisper is hollow and he hates it.

Weaver retreats to the sound of footsteps drawing closer. “For you. For them, perhaps it’s where it ends.”

“You still alive?”

John looks up at Derek and then pushes himself to his feet. “Still alive.”

“There’s a cell coming overland tonight.”

John reaches out a hand to steady himself against Derek’s shoulder, Derek lets him and he figures that’s a good sign. “Then we’ve got time for a story, but you need to ask the right question. What’s the question?”

Derek looks down at Cameron’s body as they pass it and then back to John. “When are you from, John Connor?”

Chapter Text

“What’s difficult is trying to decide what to tell you and what not to, but I guess I have a while before you’re old enough to understand these tapes. They’re more for me at this point, just so that I can get it straight. “Should I tell you about your father?

"Boy, that’s a-”

John reaches forward and presses rewind; he listens to the tape whir noisily back and then hits the chunky play button, “-tell you about your father.”

 There are other tapes, they’re newer ones - ones from after he was gone. But he can’t listen to those. Not yet. He’s tried, he just can’t. He’ll have to soon, because he kind of doubts they’re as pointless as this. As innocent as this.

Click. “- about your father.”

And that’s not the question anymore, anyway. Now it’s ‘should he tell his father about his son?’ and, seriously, that’s just not something he has the answer to. He hopes the other tapes will.

John knows how it’s supposed to go: John Connor and Kyle Reese break out of Century Work Camp and the rest is history. Or the future. A little of both, whatever.

Problem is, he still hasn’t come up with a good way – or even a bad way - to tell Derek that his brother will die, let alone tell Kyle himself. Where’s Jerry Springer when you need him?

John told Derek a story: truth hidden under layers of metaphor and lies. The plot wasn’t anything to write home about and the hard part is remembering what he said, because Derek isn’t dropping it.

John’s learning the hard way that he didn’t get his tenacity solely from his mother; the Reese side pretty much lives and dies by ‘hang in there, baby’ as well.

Every time John’s seen Derek there’s been another question – or another variation on a question - trying to catch John off-guard. Witnesses, leading questions and outright lies. It’s like a Very Special post-apocalyptic episode of Law & Order, except that he doesn’t get a phone call.

He gets tapes instead. Twenty of them carefully stacked in a carrier, nine from before he was born and eleven from after he … left. He wonders why she stayed with tape; maybe the nostalgia hit was too tempting to pass up.

Click “- your father.”

He ejects the voice of the woman he doesn’t know, slips the tape labeled ‘1/11’ into the Walkman and presses play.

-o-

It’s been two weeks since you left and I keep thinking I’m going to turn a corner and see you, or someone you sent. During the day I know it wouldn’t make sense to send anyone back so close to the time you left. At night ... I don’t know.

I don’t know why I’m even making this, you’re never going to hear it. You’re never going to hear it.”

Twenty years ago, his mother laughs. It’s cracked and tired – a little bitter - but it’s a real laugh and he smiles. Maybe she was feeling pointless after all.

Since they got back with more supplies than anyone remembers seeing before, he’s mostly been left alone except for Derek’s random visits. The only two words Derek has said, when he’s been answering questions instead of asking them, have both been no.

In retrospect, John guesses that asking if he could join the far patrol probably wasn’t a good move. Demanding to be told where Allison was, that was probably worse.

He hasn’t seen Kate since she re-stitched his shoulder, and they didn’t speak beyond a terse list of symptoms and a terser list of instructions. He’d refused the anesthetic; it was a waste when the pain of being patched up was nothing compared to how much it had hurt when the T-600 had torn into him. The antibiotics, those he took and held onto so hard they began to powder in his hand.

He hasn’t seen Kyle at all.

This tiny, soot-streaked workroom has become his very own – his very own what, that he’s leaving open until Derek stops having the door watched. So it’s John Connor, four walls, something like a floor – if he could see it under the boxes and junk - a Walkman and the spare parts he used to call Cameron.

He could look for her chip; he could spend years looking for her chip. And while he did it, every day, people would die when he could have stopped it. There’s nothing he can do for her, and the power source would change things for these people in new and better ways.

He hasn’t told them that and the guilt makes him angry. Angrier.

He brushes the dust from skin that has long-since knitted itself together and combs his fingers through her hair; his hand shakes and he pretends it’s because of the weakness in his shoulder.

He brushes his palm over her eyelids to close them and pretends he can bring her back.

Maybe if he says the right words, or clicks his heels three times, or maybe if he just wants it enough.

The door opens and he’s expecting Derek to start round eighteen; he doesn’t bother to turn around until Cameron’s voice says, “Why me?”

He startles and tries to hide it under pulling the sheet up Cameron’s torso, and then he turns to look at Allison. “You’re back.”

It’s not the most intelligent thing he’s ever said – or the least, he’s made a freaking career out of stupid moves – but it doesn’t matter, Allison isn’t really listening.

She’s staring down at Cameron and she doesn’t look much better than she did the last time he saw her, when she sat beside his palette, covered in blood. His blood, it turns out.

“It’s me. Why is it me?” Allison’s voice is low and controlled but he can hear the stutter.

John reaches out for her hand and she moves it away. He doesn’t try again. “She’s an infiltrator; it could have been anyone here.”

“But it was me. Why is it me?”

“It would have picked someone close to... to the camp.” John wants to apologize, but he’s not sure what for. If he’s sorry for one thing, he has to be sorry for everything. Anyway, he tried to get to her first, it’s Derek’s fault he didn’t. “I’m sorry,” he says anyway.

Allison’s pupils are blown wide and the dim yellow light makes her skin pale and sickly looking. She reaches towards the table again, her fingers flex and the hand draws back. Finally her head raises enough to meet his eyes. “For what?”

“I don’t know,“ he laughs a little.

She doesn’t. “What are you going to do with it?”

“It’s more advanced than anything else out there,” nearly everything else out there, he adds mentally. “We know where they’re going so we can figure out how they’re going to get there. Trip them up, maybe even get the jump on them.”

First she wouldn’t look at him and now she won’t look away. “What’s its name?” she asks, too evenly.

John ducks his head and begins stacking the tapes again. “It doesn’t have a name,” he finally mutters.

When he’s done she’s still staring at him, and he thinks maybe he owes her some of the answers he doesn’t owe Derek. Yet.

“Cameron,” he says. “Her name’s Cameron. Her chip was wiped and she was sent to protect me. She wasn’t the first one, they’ve all …” He shakes his head. “Gone.”

Allison’s expression softens, just a little. “You want it back.”

“It’s … complicated,” he tries.

“It’s sick.” Her expression twists and becomes ugly with very human disgust; John flinches.

“Yeah,” he agrees, when she’s slammed the door behind her. “It is.”

He smoothes the sheet back over Cameron and sits.

Click, whir - click. “- hear it.”

-o-

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I never wanted this fo-”

John stops the tape when the door begins to open and pulls the buds from his ears, the last thing he needs is anyone getting too interested in what he’s listening to. It’s probably just someone checking that he hasn’t built a robot army out of old oilcans and spit.

By the time the figure in black BDUs has edged his way around the pile of junk metal and the boxes of wire, John has a screwdriver in one hand and a cell phone in the other. It’s pink with little hearts edged in glitter, and for a moment he forgets he has a visitor while he tries not to envision the little girl who lost it.

If he read off the SIM, he’d probably find a list of names. Old texts. All that’s left of someone’s life.

The stranger coughs and says, ”I heard some guy made it rain food from heaven and took down metal with his bare hands. I think it’s got to be bullshit. Guy like that, he’d have to be John Connor or something.”

John’s hand tightens around the cell phone until the plastic casing creaks; he knows that voice. He thinks he knows that voice. He looks up fast, like ripping off a band-aid, and takes in the thin, scarred face. “Bedell?”

“So it is you.” Martin grins and after a moment John remembers to do the same; it’s been a while, it feels strange. “You haven’t changed. At all. And I don’t even want to know.”

“You’re the first one. Have you seen- do you know-”

“Derek? Yeah, for a while now. I never said anything. I guess … what is there to say?”

John laughs, like rust flaking away; he stands and claps the other man on the shoulder. “It’s good to see you, man. I mean, really, incredibly good.”

Bedell’s grin widens and he perches on the side of the workbench, completely ignoring the body on it except for a cursory look. “So I guess the whole fighting the future thing didn’t work out so well.”

John’s smile fades. “Not really,” he says and fights the urge to apologize again.

“That’s the trouble with future, I guess: there’s always more of it than you. But you know, right? You know what’s going to happen?”

“No. I know what might happen, some of the time,” he stares down at the cell in his hand and then carefully puts it back on the junk pile.

“But they don’t know about you, do they?” Bedell asks quietly.

John swallows. “You didn’t-“

“What do I know? I just figured, if they did, you wouldn’t be in here playing least wanted. But they know something isn’t right, enough people heard Kate saying she knew you from years back. She’s denying it now.”

John looks back, surprised enough to let the surprise show. “She is?”

“She’s buying you time, Connor. You brought good things and no ones got hurt, but getting Derek to let you keep that?” Bedell nods down at the body next to him. “That’s losing you friends and they aren’t going to wait outside the door forever. What did you tell Derek?”

“I said my mom knew this was coming and she trained me, that there was a bright light back in the 90s and suddenly I’m here. I told him Cameron just turned up one day. What would you have said?”

“I don’t know, but I’d work it out because pretty soon they won’t be taking old plots from the X-Files for an answer,” says Bedell, more bemused than reassured.

“Maybe it should be you.” John takes a breath and pitches his tone to sound as reasonable as he can. “I’m not supposed to be here, not like this. I don’t know enough. I don’t know anything. I can help you. You could-“

“No. It’s you. It’s got to be you,” Bedell cuts him off without even pretending to play dumb; John remembers when that was a good thing. It doesn’t feel so good now.

“Why? Why is it me? It’s been me before - I don’t see us winning, do you? So maybe it’s time for a new Messiah.”

He’s said too much and he braces himself against the questions, but Bedell only looks at him levelly and then says, “Back before, you looked like you knew it all.” He shakes his head; wryness cut with the morbid amusement everyone keeps around them like a comforter. “Pretty cool.”

John shrugs a shoulder and then shrugs both, just because he can now. “Yeah, well, things change.”

“Or maybe things just look different from twenty years away. You knew enough to be scared and you were trying like hell not to show it.”

“Okay, so nothing changes,” John laughs quietly.

Bedell only smiles. “You have to keep doing that. In here, you can be scared to death just like the rest of us, but out there you have to be something else for just long enough to fool them. You reminded them they can keep fighting, now you have to give them a way to do it.”

“It could be you,” John whispers. “Please let it be you, just this time.”

The whisper withers between them.

“It can’t be me, I’m not John Connor. But I’m going to do you a favor.”

John watches him warily; he doesn’t like Bedell’s expression even a little bit. “What?”

“I’m going to leave and I’m not going to come back again. Whatever happens … happens. And if I’m not there when you kick metal ass all the way back to the stone ages, then I’ll know there was a reason.”

“I can’t do this,” John tries, but it doesn’t look like Bedell’s any more inclined to believe him than anyone else has been.

“You already did, Connor. You already did.” Bedell cuffs him lightly on the side of the head and grins. As he leaves, he calls back over his shoulder, loud enough to be heard by anyone in the corridor, “Yes, sir. I’m on it.”

John guesses it’s his last gift.

He sits where Bedell sat and stares down at the sheet covering Cameron’s torso. When the shapes under it blur and cease to have meaning, he pulls it away. The blade of his knife slips easily through the outer skin and he ignores the red fluid that wells up.

He pushes his hand through and up until he can touch the casing of the power unit; it’s cold. Without looking up the frame, he withdraws his hand and crosses over to the door.

There’s a woman standing outside it, there’s been someone out there since they got back. Guarding or watching, he’s still not sure and he doesn’t really care anymore. He nods to her. “Where’s Derek Reese?”

He’d guessed she was in her thirties, but when she speaks she sounds younger. “He’ll be in command.”

“I’ll go … “ he closes his eyes, finds what he needs and then opens them with a faint, detached smile. “Tell him to get over here, please.”

“I’m not your-” his guard begins with a scowl.

He holds up a hand to stop her. “Would you like power? To charge those rifles, maybe? Keep the infirmary lights on? Hey, maybe we could even run some defenses, how would that be?” He waits for that to register and then repeats, “Go and tell Reese to get over here. Now.”

She pauses, uncertain, and he uses the moment to back into the workroom and close the door. He can do this. He can be John Connor for long enough.

Click-whir. Click. “-for you.

-o-

It’s been a month now. Weaver gave Ellison control of the company. We’ve been going through everything, but I’m not sure there’s anything here that will help you. The archives on John-Henry are incomplete and the team who worked on him are all on extended vacation. Turns out they have been since the project started, so we’re not going to track them down unless we dredge the river. But we’ll try.

I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if the Tin Miss was working with the data, we’d know a lot more. There’s too much here to process and you know me and computers.

Savannah has figured out that her mom isn’t coming back, I think. Ellison keeps trying but she’s not speaking to him. She’s sleeping in your room, your old room, now. It’s … it’s good she’s sleeping at all.

Anyway. Send us back another tin can. One of the liquid ones, if you can.”

It’s kind of funny, John thinks, that his mom is letting him in more with two-decade-old tapes than she ever has before. Maybe it’s because the end of the world was never the worst thing that could happen for her; maybe it’s easier now she’ll never have to watch him die.

It’s even funnier she’s putting in orders for termination units. He wonders what she’s still not telling him, because sure as hell she doesn’t just want a walking talking processor.

Derek doesn’t knock, it’s a thing. John tracks his progress by the occasional curse as his uncle is ambushed by falling boxes. John doesn’t look up from the cell he’s taken apart, he’s decided that’s a thing now too.

Half a minute and a lot of swearing later, Derek makes it to the clear spot in front of the workbench. “You okay? You need Kate?”

And now he’s glad he didn’t look up, because he’s all set for a fight but Derek’s gone right for the kill with his concern.

John tries to make his expression as impassive as possible and then, finally, raises his head. “I’m fine. I wanted to talk to you about putting power down below.”

“We can’t, the heat signature would be-.”

“Not if it’s shielded. The T-600’s power unit isn’t, it runs hot – that’s why I asked you to dump it as far out as possible; it was slowly irradiating the bunker. This model is safe. They needed it to be safe so it could stay undetected.”

Derek cants his head. “That’s why you wanted it bought back?”

“Right,” John lies. “I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure.”

Derek looks a little angry, but mostly he looks relieved. “You should have said something, we thought-“

“I don’t care what you thought,” John lies again and wonders if he’s pushed it too far.

Derek just nods, completely discounting John’s arrogance; John still hasn’t met anyone who can compartmentalize quite like his uncle. “Okay. What do you need?”

“Three or four people, they don’t need to be Techs but they do need to do exactly what I tell them or we won’t have to worry about the machines killing us.”

Derek nods again and then says, “Martin’s gone.”

“I know. I sent him. You don’t need to know more than that.”

Now Derek’s jaw does flex – Bedells’s a friend, he doesn’t get discounted. John softens his tone. “If it works out, I’ll fill you in.”

Derek watches John work on the cell for a few seconds and then asks, “What changed?”

The cell phone gives up the SIM card and John weighs it in his hand - a little life, too light to feel. “Do you believe in destiny? Fate?”

“Some big book up in the sky?” Derek frowns slightly. “No.”

“My mom thinks – thought – there’s no fate but what we make.”

“What do you think?”

“I think I can tell you the future. I think I can tell you how this ends.”

Derek looks doubtful, “Are you going to?”

“No,” John curls his fingers around the SIM for a moment and then drops it into the pile to be melted down. “As long as you think I can’t, maybe we have a chance.”

When Derek has gone to find three or four people who are suicidal enough to try jury-rigging a mini nuclear power plant, John presses play and picks up his knife again.

He slices away a pound of synthetic meat at a time; strip by strip, down to the metal.

It’s Fall and I moved on. I had to move on. It’s two-thousand nine and we’re a little way south of Santa Ana. Savannah has started school here. I didn’t know what to tell her, but I didn’t know what to tell you either and that still worked out, right?

She’s a smart kid. I think once she gets a little training and stops seeing killer robots everywhere, she’ll be okay.

I miss you, John. I love you and we’re still trying.”

Click. “- still trying.”

Chapter Text

“I miss you, John. I love you and we’re still trying.” Sarah presses a button and ends the report; she has nothing else.

Behind her, the sound of crayon on paper stops and Savannah says, “I’m tired.” It’s a small, lost voice that skims Sarah’s nerves in ways shouts and screams never can.

“I know you’re tired,” she snaps and it sounds harsh. Too harsh.

Sarah draws a breath, plasters an encouraging smile over her impatience and turns away from the window. The kid is still sitting at the table in the center of the room, somehow conveying the same prim neatness in torn jeans and a faded old t-shirt that she did in her school uniform.

She’s staring down at the crayon in her hand; it’s bright blue, vivid against the muted tones of the tiny cabin.

“I know you’re tired,” Sarah manages more gently this time. “It’s not long now. See, the little hand is on five. When it’s on six you can go to bed.”

Savannah looks up from the crayon to the clock on the wall; it’s square and wooden and its tick is soft and dragging, like time knows it’s not wanted here. “Mommy says I should sleep. Mommy says I need ten and three-quarters hours to twelve hours sleep every night,” she parrots. “Mommy says-“

“Mommy won’t mind just this once,” Sarah says as she crouches by her chair. “I promise you can sleep soon and when you wake up, I’ll make pancakes.”

Savannah’s nose wrinkles and Sarah smiles. “So I promise I won’t make pancakes. Maybe Raisa will make you some tres leches if you count to ten for her again.”

Raisa runs a cantina further up the track; she owns this shack too. She’s known Sarah for years and whether it’s broken bones, C-4 or small children with red hair, she never asks.

With more enthusiasm than the kid’s shown since Sarah has known her, Savannah begins to count. “Uno, dos, tres, cato -

Cuatro,” Sarah corrects. After a beat she remembers to say, “That’s good. That’s really good.” She’d really hoped this would be easier the second time around. “Go on.”

Too late, the fog Savannah has been in since – since then - has rolled back over her.

”Why can’t I sleep?” Her eyes are dull and shadowed with the fear she carries with her the way most children carry a teddy bear: hauling it from place to place and holding it close like it’s her only friend.

She wets her bed most nights and when Sarah doesn’t get there fast enough she wakes up screaming.

“Because you have to learn how to stay awake, even when you don’t want to. Even when you think you can’t anymore.” Sarah puts an arm around her shoulders and pulls her into a loose hug. The thin frame doesn’t respond, not to draw closer or to pull away. It’s John at this age, John exactly, and Sarah doesn’t know why history keeps repeating. Only that it does.

She doesn’t know how not to do this all over again.

“Where is Mr. Ellison?”

“In LA.”

“Where is John-Henry?”

“I don’t know.”

All she has to give right now is a shot at surviving and the truth, so she does.

Savannah’s head bends over her coloring and Sarah stands back to look at her progress.

Coloring works as an assessment: it’s an activity Savannah enjoys – or at least takes some comfort in - and it allows Sarah to see how well she functions without sleep.

John never had the patience for coloring and, if Sarah’s honest – and lately she tries to be – she never really had the patience to let him enjoy it. When he’d gone without sleep he had played computer games over and over, temper steadily getting worse with his score. When she’d told him to go to bed he’d refused until he’d finally beaten the level, or the boss - or whatever the hell he’d been trying to do – and then slept fourteen hours straight.

She hadn’t tested him after that.

With Savannah she had expected the crayon strokes to scrawl outside the lines as the hours went on, but they don’t. Kid’s slower, but no less careful.

Sarah can only hope she keeps that focus when they progress from coloring books to setting charges.

She sits in the only other chair, picks up a green crayon and begins to carefully fill in the outline of a puppy.

Savannah’s hand shoots across the table and pulls the book away. “That’s wrong,” she snaps.

“I’m sorry, I thought you might want to …”

“Dogs aren’t green. You mustn’t make them green.”

Sarah tilts her head and tries, “Maybe some are green. Just because you’ve never seen one-“

“No.”

“Do you want to do something else?”

The animation has left the girl, but Sarah pulls a box of little hand-carved wooden blocks, scuffed remnants of Raisa’s childhood, down the table towards them. “We could make something.”

Savannah carefully stacks her books to the side and slots the crayons back in their box one by one. Only then does she begin to take out the blocks and pile them neatly before her.

Sarah watches and wishes she understood. Again.

When Savannah begins to stack the blocks into walls, she asks, “What are you building?”

“Mount Vonny. It’s the hiding place. The Toes protect it from the hunters.”

“Did you play this at school?”

“No.”

“Did you play it with your Mommy? Or Ellison?”

“No.”

“Who did you play it with?”

Savannah is silent as she makes jagged-edged shapes.

“Did you play with John-Henry?” Sarah tries.

Savannah still says nothing; Sarah guesses she has her answer. She stands and walks around the room, checking the door. The windows they have to keep open so they don’t suffocate in the heat. It’s a two-room shack on the edge of Nuevo Horizonte. There really isn’t a lot of walking or checking to do.

Santa Ana is barely a blip on anyone’s radar and they’re well south of it. She’d been here with John when he was Savannah’s age, he probably didn’t remember it.

Saint Anne, watching over mothers and the childless; Sarah wonders which she counts as now. Maybe both - she needs all the divine intervention she can get.

When she draws the rag they’re using as a blind away from the window, a shadow moves on the perimeter; a huge head jerks up as Hijo hears her, maybe smells her. She murmurs softly into the pre-dawn and the mastiff’s ears flick once.

She didn’t name the dog - she hadn’t wanted to - but Raisa had taken one look at the bitch and sworn loudly. Savannah had heard and now the dog is called ‘Sonofa-’ in place of an awkward explanation. As a rule, Sarah doesn’t like naming things; she guesses it’s good John’s name was preordained.

The clicking of the blocks ceases and Sarah turns to make sure Savannah hasn’t fallen asleep; she hasn’t. Her eyes are fixed on the tiny tower in front of her and Sarah has no idea what to say.

She tries, “Savannah?”

Nothing.

She tries, ”Are you hungry?”

The girl shakes her head, just a little.

Sarah looks at the clock, only half an hour left. She could end it, but weakness now won’t help the girl survive what’s coming later. What isn’t coming later, Sarah corrects herself.

(What’s coming later.)

She tries, “Would you like to play a game? Or I could read you a story.”

Nothing again.

Awkwardly, Sarah touches her shoulder but Savannah doesn’t move.

She tries, “What do you want?”

“I want my Mommy.”

Sarah nods, “I know.”

“I’m tired.”

She nods again. “I know.”

Savannah stares at her as they reach an impasse and then slips off the chair as carefully as she does everything else. “I want her.”

“She isn’t here, Savannah. Do you understand? Your Mommy went away with John-Henry and with - with my John. They’re not here,” she repeats.

Savannah twists the bracelet on her wrist over and over, and Hijo barks.

One bark and Sarah pauses. Two and she pushes Savannah under the table. “Stay there.” Savannah lays flat and puts her hands over her head and ears, exactly as Sarah taught her, but there’s no time to tell her how well she’s done.

The barking rises in pitch and volume and then drops to a low warning growl.

Sarah crouches under the window with the shotgun in her hands and takes a breath. She raises her head fast, just enough to see, and then ducks back.

There’s someone standing beyond the fence. It’s not Ellison, he won’t be here for days. It’s not Raisa, Raisa knows better.

A three count and she looks again, the figure is still there. A woman, Sarah thinks, but it’s hard to tell at this distance. Anyway, the machines can look like whoever the hell they want.

Savannah stares out at her mutely, Sarah stares back. Finally, she finds her voice. “If you hear a really loud bang, you run out the back to Raisa’s house. Just like we talked about. Remember?”

She nods to the bolt hole that’s cut into the floor, just large enough for Savannah or Hijo. ”And if anyone comes in here and they don’t say the right words, you stay really quiet, wait for them to go and then you run. What are the words?”

“There’s no place like home,” Savannah whispers.

“Good girl.” Sarah doesn’t say it’ll be fine; she turns back to the window and raises her head carefully.

Through the binnocs she can see the figure more clearly. It’s definitely a woman – woman-shaped, anyway - with dark hair falling across her face and obscuring her features. Not on purpose, maybe: she’s looking down and only down. Her hands are held away from her side, palm out and clearly empty.

Sarah slows draws back down and then slides to the side window, staying as low as she can. When there are no shots, she climbs out of the window and drops down into the thin scrub cover.

She inches her way closer, avoiding the areas really better avoided for one explosive reason or another. When she’s behind the semi-cover of a rusted black pick-up on blocks she lines her shot and says, “Name.”

The bent head raises and Sarah doesn’t pull the trigger, just.

”Flores, Jesse.” The woman smiles and the smile turns crooked. “Or Ms. Wilson, if you like.”

“I don’t like either.” Sarah doesn’t ask why, she has better questions. “How did you find me?” It’s not going to be ‘us’ until she figures out how much Jesse knows.

“Can I come closer? Feels a little exposed out here, you know?”

Sarah considers and then nods; it's better whatever goes down, goes down further from the road. “Walk through the gate and stop.”

Jesse does exactly as she’s directed, she doesn’t even try and pick up the bag at her feet. Sarah tracks her steadily with the barrel of the shotgun and then clicks to Hijo.

Hijo pads closer, hackles raised. She growls but she doesn’t attack; so Jesse passes the ‘human’ test, but there’s a long way between human and friend.

Another click and Hijo backs up to sit and stare at the stranger with the focused concentration of a dog that hunts for its food.

“How did you find me?” Sarah asks again and raises the barrel of the shotgun to make a chest shot a head shot; at this range, there’d be no chance at all.

Jesse’s eyes dart away and then back, “I heard you were out here and need help. That’s it.”

“I should kill you,” Sarah says, but it’s not a threat and it’s not meant to be – not really.

“John Connor let me go,” Jesse’s voice is a whip and it’s not just lashing out at Sarah.

There’s something twisted up in the woman’s expression and it’s enough – just enough – to make her lower the barrel just a fraction. “What do you want?”

“To help.” Sarah snorts and Jesse’s mouth curves into a hard smile as she goes on. “I can help.”

“I’ve seen you help. Go away.”

“Can you afford that? I know Derek’s –“ Jesse swallows and barely pauses, but her chin lifts. “I know Derek’s dead. I know Connor is gone and I don’t see any metal babysitter backing you up. It’s just you. And it’s just me. It’s just us.”

“Why would you possibly think I would want anything to do with you? I know what you tried to do – I know what you did and I don’t care what your reasons were.”

Jesse’s stare reminds Sarah of Derek’s; damaged in ways she’s can’t fathom, ways that make her defensive and angry and prone to saying stupid things just to make it turn to something she understands.

How she missed it in Riley, she doesn’t know.

Jesse says, “Who’s the kid?”

Sarah doesn’t turn, she doesn’t have to - she knows who’s back there. Now the only question is where she buries Jesse’s body. Jesse’s eyes widen and then narrow; Sarah guesses she saw her future. “Go back in the house, Savannah.”

“Mommy says -.”

Savannah sounds closer than Sarah had thought and she turns, only a fraction and she’s already turning back while Jesse makes her move. The shotgun blast is close and loud, the shot goes over Jesse’s shoulder and the woman reels away clutching at her head.

Sarah kicks out and puts a boot in her face; it knocks Jesse down but she rolls and comes up with dry dirt in her fist. Sarah catches the fist but misses the kick; Jesse’s heel slams hard into her knee and her leg folds under her.

With a curse she uses the momentum she’s been given – whether she wanted it or not – to plough her fist into the woman’s eye.

Hijo’s jaws snap just over her head as Jesse slams back into the ground. A dog pile is not what they need; with a whistle and a gesture, Sarah takes the bitch out of the fight.

Jesse is pulling herself up fast but Sarah forces herself to be faster; she’s always got to be faster. She brings the butt of the shotgun around and down on hard on the side of Jesse’s head and that – well that takes the fight out of the bitch. Sarah huffs under her breath.

“Guard,” she snarls to Hijo and then looks back over her shoulder towards the shack; Savannah is staring with huge eyes. The kid turns and runs. Sarah runs after her, trying to keep her weight off a knee that will buckle the moment she allows it to. She won’t. “Savannah, wait!”

Savannah runs into the shack and slams the door behind her; it bounces from the force and swings inward again. Sarah hangs on the frame for a moment and closes her eyes in a search for calm. “No place like home,” she whispers.

There’s a muffled sob from under the table. Sarah limps inside and levers herself down until she’s sitting beside the girl.

“It’s okay,” she says, breaking her rule but what’s one more? “Everything’s okay. She won’t hurt you.” In the face of Savannah’s tears she adds, “I won’t hurt you. My job, my only job right now, is to keep you safe.”

Tentatively she reaches in to the girl and takes her hand.

Savannah’s barely audible through the sobs, but Sarah can make out the word “Mommy.”

Sarah pulls her into her arms and rocks her until she falls asleep; it doesn’t take long. It’s awkward to stand with a busted up knee and a dead weight in her arms, but she manages. Savannah stays asleep as Sarah puts her in the bed, draws the sheets up and tucks her in.

When she’s sure sleep has taken the kid under for the moment, she limps back outside.

Jesse is sitting with her head in her hands and a pool of dust-dried blood beside her; the skin of her fingers is painted in dust and blood too. Hijo sits just a foot away and Sarah can hear the low growl.

When Sarah has drawn to a stop before her, gun in one hand and the comforting weight of the shotgun in the other, Jesse says, “Do it. Just do it.”

Sarah knows she could; knows no one would ever know. “John Connor let you go,” she replies at last.

Jesse’s shoulder’s shake, Sarah doesn’t think that it’s tears. If it’s tears, she might have to pull the trigger. It’s laughter; racking, tearing laughter. The kind of laughter that eats you alive. And that? Sarah understands.

With a grunt, she grips Jesse by her arm and hauls her to her feet. “Come on.”

Chances are, this isn’t a good plan.

Jesse says nothing as she’s led inside and dropped in Savannah’s chair at the table, but her expression is tight and focused. By the time Sarah has finished looking the doors and re-setting the alarms, there’s no sign of the ragged edges at all. Sarah really doesn’t want to respect that, but she does.

It makes her even harsher than she would have been as she rinses a cloth in the yellow-tinged water that shudders in bursts from the creaking tap and then throws it to the other woman. “Clean up.”

Jesse methodically begins to wipe the blood away from her mouth and then presses hard against the deeper gash on cheek that the shotgun gave her. “Got anything to drink?”

Wordlessly, Sarah pushes a jug of water and a glass over the table. Savannah gets bottled water, Sarah has lived around here long enough the water’s not going to do anything to her and Jesse, well Sarah figures this is purer than anything where – when - she’s from.

“How did you find us?” she asks again, when the cloth is soaked red and bleeding has stopped.

“I was in a bar, got a call.” Jesse’s mumbling; probably the swelling but it makes it harder to hear the lies. Fleetingly, and with no little sense of irony, Sarah wishes Cameron were there.

She’ll have to do it the hard way. “Did they give a name? Did you recognise the voice?”

“No. It was a man - that was it. Old. He said you needed me, he told me where you were and then he hung up. He knew where I was. I thought -- it was you. Or someone like me.”

There’s no cell coverage out here, no way Sarah can call Ellison. But she knows it wasn’t him. Her body is way ahead of her train of thought; she’s already moving. “There’s a truck out the back, bring it around front.”

Jesse doesn’t question her; she catches the keys Sarah throws and goes. Sarah feels the twinge of a shape filled, but not well and not right; color spilling outside the lines.

In the half-minute it takes the truck to pull around, Sarah has Savannah - wrapped in blankets – in her arms and a bag of weaponry slung over her shoulder. She whistles for Hijo to jump in the back, throws the bag after her and then climbs in to sit shotgun with a gun in her hand and a child in her lap.

Well, this is familiar.

Jesse swings them along dirt tracks towards the main road. “Where to, boss?” she asks, ironically or Sarah would have to revisit the plan to kill her.

“West. No conversation.”

Jesse smirks and makes a fast u-turn that draws a yelp from Hijo and flattens Sarah against the door. She doesn’t say anything for an hour and then, “South, get on the thirteen, then take the seven west.”

Savannah had whimpered when Sarah had taken her from her bed, but she’s asleep again. It’s a small mercy, but Sarah’s gotten used to taking whatever mercy is going.

The kid keeps sleeping for the six hours it takes them to reach the Mexican border, with the radio hissing in the background and the sun beating through the windows.

Jesse stops on the side of the road as they arrive at the outskirts of Pacoc. Her fingers beat on the wheel but she still doesn’t say anything, the good little soldier.

Sarah breaks the hours-long silence to ask, “How did you get over the border?”

“I have ID and I’m not armed.” Jesse lifts her gaze enough to look in the rearview at back seat and its pile of weapons. “Wasn’t armed,” she amends.

“You’re still not armed,” Sarah points out absently. “Keep it that way. There’s a motel a mile south of Potrerillo. Tell Hector I’m coming and if I’m not there by dawn, he can have the stash.” She nods to the car door. “Go.”

Jesse’s eyes flicker and Sarah’s waiting for the question; it doesn’t come. Sarah guesses, in the end, whether she really intends to go there doesn’t matter. The woman opens the door and drops down. With a final measuring look to Sarah, she rescues her own bag from under Hijo and then she walks away.

As carefully as possible, Sarah slides herself out from under Savannah and into the driver’s seat. She waits until Jesse is just one figure amongst many in the brightly decorated street and then pulls the truck back onto the road.

There are people, there are places, and in the last sixteen years Sarah has come to know enough of them.

She figures, if they ever save the future, she’s got a hell of career as a Coyotero to look forward to.

She abandons the truck and some of the guns as payment and carries Savannah as a boy leads them through the night, down back roads and tracks. Savannah’s silence should be worrying, Sarah knows, but right now she’s only grateful for it.

Their guide points to the jutting end of an old under-pipe and has disappeared before she’s had time to thank him.

A few minutes later, they’re in Mexico.

The walk to the highway is short but it gives her time to decide whether to try and hitch or just put a gun in someone’s face. She really doesn’t love her chances of catching a ride: no one’s stopping for a woman with a bag of guns and a dog that big, child or not.

Of course, the trouble with both options is they need a vehicle. Any vehicle at all.

When a battered truck pulls up beside them she almost misses it, concentrating too hard on just putting one foot in front of the next.

Sarah drops Savannah down and pushes the girl behind her, killing two birds with one stone as it lets her get a grip on the gun tucked into the back of her pants.

Her other hand rests lightly on the top of Hijo’s head and she waits, tense but ready as the window creaks down.

“Need a ride?” Jesse asks.

Jesse doesn’t know Sarah, but she did know Derek. She knows what Derek would have done and she’s doing it, right down to the wary smile.

“You’re not Derek,” Sarah says.

Jesse shrugs. “Who is anymore?” Her attention slips from Sarah down to Savannah and then slides back up. “Coming? Kid looks ready to fall over.”

“Kid’s no concern of yours.”

“What’s your problem?” Jesse looks so genuinely confused that Sarah’s outrage catches in her throat and the list - the long, long list - isn’t getting past it.

“I’m hungry,” Savannah whispers into the strangled silence.

“I know,” Sarah replies at the same time as Jesse says, “Could be worse.”

Savannah peeks a little way out from behind Sarah and asks, “How?”

Jesse shrugs. “You could be hungry and have no food. What’s your name?”

“Savannah Maureen Weaver.”

“Pretty name,” Jesse says and throws the kid a pack of hotel biscuits; lesson taught, learned and rewarded with a careless hand, and Savannah finally smiles.

Sarah knows this shouldn’t be what makes her bring Jesse along – anything but this - but all she sees when she looks at Savannah is the boy who isn’t there.

“Culiacán,” she directs finally.

After a moment Jesse nods and then slips out of the truck to help load up guns, kid and dog. She doesn’t say anything; it may be the most helpful thing she’s done so far.

Jesse drives the dark highway and Savannah curls in the back, cushioned against the swerves and stops by Hijo’s bulk. Sarah presses two buttons on the recorder and lets the road thrum under them for a heartbeat before she speaks.

She says, “It’s late fall, two-thousand nine. We’re in Mexico. Someone is watching us.”

She whispers, “Is it you?”

Chapter Text

John tries to imagine a scenario where he’d ask Jesse Flores to help anyone – anyone at all - and he really can’t. He wants to scream that back into history, but that’s not going to happen.

Not yet.

He reminds himself that there are nine tapes left: nine tapes his mother had to be alive to record. He doesn’t let himself wonder why there aren’t more.

The temptation to skip to the end hits hard and he has ‘11/11’ in his hand before he fights the urge down – again - and slips the tape back into the pile.

He has to do this properly because if Connors know anything, they know context is everything.

Derek leans in through the doorway, coughs and says, “They’re ready.”

He’s smiling and that doesn’t happen so often that John is immune. He grins and stands; today down below gets heat and light.

Maybe they even get a little hope. Part of him wonders if that’s a mistake, if hope could break them where the darkness and the cold couldn’t. It’s a small part and he stamps down hard on it until it’s a shadow blending with all the other second-guesses he’s put away.

Hey, at least he’s finally in a place where repression is a valued life skill.

Derek doesn’t say anything as they walk through the tunnels, but John’s okay with that. It’s an easy quiet and it’s good to have it back. He just follows in his uncle’s wake and nods and smiles encouragingly to the people they pass; it’s important they remember him now.

Most of them smile but one man looks away with a tight frown. Lee: John recognizes him from Derek’s Recon team. The man had been about to shoot him, so it left kind of an impression.

Now he looks a little like he wants to shoot John again, but there’s no time to worry about it because the crowd has taken him on and into the converted boiler room.

The set-up isn’t pretty, it’s more like something out of Geiger than a power plant, but he can see the Techs have finished the job. He wanders around kicking the tires, but it’s mostly for show. The unit Cameron has donated is clean (although John’s pretty sure that if there is a future where he has kids, it’s probably not going to be this one) and accessible and it only took a couple of weeks because the stockpile was good, but his mother hadn’t anticipated his need to jury-rig a nuclear generator.

“Okay,” he says and then he nods to the lead Tech. “Let there be light.”

Bell, an older man with fine blonde hair and a near-sighted squint, jumps a little and then nods rapidly; he flips the switch.

And there is light.

It’s not much, but it’s better than glowsticks; John closes his eyes and lets them adjust. When he opens them there’s a man coming in fast. He jerks back but it’s too late; he’s expecting a punch and instead it’s a hug so tight his ribs creak.

The man is mumbling his thanks over and over; John pats his shoulder awkwardly and looks around for help. Derek’s grin widens, but he takes pity and says, “He gets it, you’re welcome”, as he pulls the man away and puts himself between John and the crowd.

John takes a nervous step back as Derek’s pushed against him, but then Kyle’s there too. “Hey, back it up.” There’s a c-click John recognizes and the crowd settles back and turns away; no one wants to get light and get shot on the same day.

The first man lingers, looking embarrassed. Derek raises a hand to gently push him away, but John remembers now. He pushes himself between Derek and Kyle: John Connor doesn’t get to hide behind anyone, even when he wants to. Especially when he wants to.

He tries a grin, “It’s Henry, right?”

“Right,” Henry nods slowly and the smiles. “You asked if I was a teacher.”

“What did you teach?”

“High-school Math. And I thought there wasn’t a lot of work for teachers then.”

As a joke it falls a little flat but John laughs anyway. “I guess. Maybe you can get a job here.”

He doesn’t mean it, he’s just striking out for anything at all to say, but Henry’s expression becomes speculative, almost cautiously hopeful. “You think so?” he asks more intently than John’s happy with, “You think it’s worth it?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I do,” John nods as certainly as he can, because he’s made a mistake, the least he can do is not make it worse. He ignores the identical looks of disbelief the Reese brothers are giving him.

-o-

Later, when Henry has gone to organize his first class and Kyle has remembered he’s angry and left - when it’s just John and his uncle and the dimly flickering lights of the generator - John asks, “Do you trust me now?”

Derek’s eyes narrow and the good humor fades away. “Why?”

John has considered his approach carefully – how to sell it, how to reason, how to cajole, threaten or bribe. In his head, none of those have ended well, so he figures he’ll try something radical: the truth. “I need to go to Century. There’s someone in there we have to get out.”

“There’s a thousand people in there we have to get out,” Derek replies mildly. Honestly that’s better than John had hoped for.

John ducks his head. “I know. But this one is …”

“Important?” Derek’s tone is ironic now and the eyebrow has lifted.

John counts to three and says, “Her name is Savannah Weaver, and she’s got information we need. Information that will help us fight, help us win.”

“No way Perry is going for this,” Derek shakes his head, but at least he looks interested now, he isn’t just humoring the Boy Wonder.

John holds his gaze and doesn’t blink. “I’m not asking Perry if he trusts me, I’m asking if you do.”

“I don’t trust you. I don’t think you’re with the machines, but I don’t think you’re being straight with us. If it was just me, maybe, but these people don’t deserve a gamble on their lives.”

It’s as blunt as Derek ever is and honestly, John was expecting it, but that doesn’t make it any easier. “Fine.”

“Connor – “ Derek reaches out a hand.

John ducks away from it and heads for the door. “I get it. I understand. I really do.”

He really does. Doesn’t make it hurt any less.

It was never Derek Reese and John Connor anyway.

He needs a plan.

He really needs to stop trying to tell the truth.

-o-

It takes a couple of weeks for Derek to stop looking at him like he’s about to stage a one-man attack on Century, a little longer for John to forgive him for not being who he was never meant to be.

Perry gives John his pick of duty and suggests heavily he should stay with the Techs, but doesn’t stop him from joining Derek’s Recon team.

There are seven of them now, picking through the remains of the city.

John’s partnered with Allison and he’s pretty sure Derek’s left standing orders that she’s not to let him out of her sight, because she never does. She doesn’t talk much either, nothing more than she has to. He doesn’t mind, maybe it’s easier that way.

They lie side by side on the crest of some torn up masonry that he thinks used to be the freeway, waiting to get the signal from Derek’s position. His attention wanders over the skyline until Allison’s elbow jabs him in the ribs. He starts and then looks around; she nods down into to the pass they’re working their way around.

There are two figures making their way across the open ground. Dangerous, but from the state of them they can’t manage the steep piles of rubble and bone.

It’s a younger man, about Kyle’s age John guesses, and an older woman, leaning on each other step by step.

The dog lying at Allison’s other side watches closely, but it doesn’t look like it’s about to attack. They’re human.

John looks up at Lee’s position and sees the sniper lining his sights.

He hisses almost sub-vocally. “What’s he doing?”

“Making sure,” replies Allison just as quietly.

“But they aren’t metal.”

“Doesn’t mean they’re not dangerous. Could be sick. Jackals send sick people ahead, a bunker takes them in and a week later there’s no one who can fight back. Or they could be goats. Could have tracers.” Allison shrugs and minutely adjusts her aim. “Could be a lot of things.”

The two figures pass Derek at point and only then, when they’re surrounded, does Derek call out from behind his cover, “Dangerous place to take a walk.”

Both figures stagger to a stop and try and turn. The man calls out, “Don’t shoot! Please, don’t shoot!”

Kyle’s voice echoes down to them, “Which camp are you out of?”

“Crystal Peak, the one-forty under Jackson. They took us out a week ago. Please. Please.”

Beside John, Allison’s eyes are wide with shock.

“Crystal Peak?” John asks.

Her eyes narrow again. “Nevada, you should know it.”

He’s long past worrying if people are suspicious, “I guess I never found them, what was it?”

“Our strongest bunker. It was a real bunker; it had defenses. Trained soldiers. The metal could never get in.”

“Why didn’t they nuke it?”

Allison’s pause is long and more complicated than John can decipher, she finally says, “We don’t know.”

Derek’s voice is dull when he says almost perfunctorily, “Survivors?”

“Two,” says the woman, speaking at last. “Two,” she says again, like she can’t believe it.

“Jackson doesn’t command Crystal Peak,” says Kyle’s voice from somewhere to John’s right.

The younger man nods quickly and holds up a hand again. “He does. He did. Bakov died three months ago.”

“How?”

The woman’s voice is carefully without inflection. “She was cleaning her gun.”

Allison sighs softly and John guesses that means something more. “What?”

“You heard; she was cleaning her gun.”

John gets it. “Right. Accidents happen.”

Lee’s voice calls down from far above them all. “How did you get out?”

“I don’t know. We were dead. We should have been dead.” The man shakes his head and releases his hold on the woman, stepping away and sitting on a chunk of concrete. John can make out faded graffiti tags, claiming territory that doesn’t exist.

Derek stands, yards away from where John had thought he was. “You know we can’t take you.”

Neither of the figures below seems surprised. The man sags but the woman only nods. “We’re not asking you to. We just – we just.”

John looks to Allison again for understanding. “What? Why?”

“Too dangerous. If the machines are tracking them, they’ll lead them right to us.”

“You took me in.”

Allison’s gaze flickers away. “That was Derek’s call. He told Perry anyone using you had to be desperate.”

John smiles and Derek is forgiven. “Yeah, sounds about right.”

When John looks back, the two are walking again. He’d thought it was a test, or maybe there was somewhere else they could go, but Derek’s sending these people to their deaths.

He scrambles up to his feet so Derek can see him, “We can’t leave them out here.”

Allison reaches for his arm but he pulls away and lets himself slide down the debris; he tries not to think about the dry, cracking sounds it makes under him.

He lands about twenty feet from the two. They don’t look sick, just exhausted. They stop and he edges closer. “Crystal Peak. What happened, how did the machines get in?”

The woman shakes her head; she’s too tired to waste words. “I don’t know.”

“Did someone let them in?” he presses.

The younger man isn’t so tired; his free hand curls into a fist. “Are you crazy?”

John rubs a hand over his face and tries, “Did anyone go missing just before you were attacked? Come back a few days later?”

The woman lays a hand on the man’s arm, keeping him with her. “We lost all but one of a Recon team. Reynolds made it back, he was okay.”

John closes his eyes, opens them and sees it playing out in front of his eyes. “Didn’t seem like himself, right? Little quiet, maybe? Kept away from the dogs.”

“Dogs?” The man looks puzzled and John understands. The T-600 sent against the Kansas camp had been a test run; no one else had defenses.

John breathes out; they’re all out of time.

Derek’s by his side now, pushing him back and John lets him. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

He’s staring at Derek, but he’s not seeing him; he’s seeing the game shifting and changing and the world tilts.

“Eight-hundreds. How do they have eight-hundreds?”

Derek lets him go and John scrambles back up towards Allison; he has to do this now. He’ll never have the courage to do it again.

She stands, up in his face and angry. “What are you-?”

He grips her shoulders and pulls her close enough he can feel her breath on his skin. “Listen. Listen to me,” he hisses.

She blinks and stops speaking.

“The machine that looked like you? That hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to and, Allison if she gets to you, she’ll kill you. She’ll replace you. She’ll become you. So you have to stay in the camp, you understand me?”

Her mouth moves and finally she nods. “Okay.”

By then Derek is at his side and hauling him around. “Talk,” he commands.

John talks. Well, maybe he babbles a little. “The machines have eight-hundreds now, at least. Maybe even trip-eights, I don’t know. They look like us. You knew I wasn’t a machine after a second, right? These ones, only the dogs know.”

“The radiation-“

“They run cold, just like Cameron. They’re faster, they’re tougher and their analytics are off the charts. What was in Crystal Peak they needed so bad they couldn’t nuke it?”

Derek looks down and John steps closer; Derek pushes him back. “Back in position, now.”

John opens his mouth but Allison’s hand on his arm closes it. He falls back with her while Derek slides down.

“How do you know what you know? Who are you?”

Her voice is gentle and that’s incongruous enough to release some of the tension stringing him together. “People keep asking me that.”

“So tell them. Tell me.”

“It’s not that easy. God,” he laughs and then stops before he scares anyone. “I wish it was that easy.”

Allison lets him go and steps away; John guesses they’re back to silence. They watch the refugees until they’re lost to the wasteland, and then Derek pulls them back.

-o-

He’s expecting to spend the hours until the next patrol alone in the workshop; the Techs leave him things to take apart or put together, and it’s relaxing like it’s normal.

Instead, Allison appears with two cans of what turns out to be beans and grapefruit. She perches on his workbench, pulls out a knife, spears a piece of fruit and says, “You need to trust someone.”

John jabs a relatively clean screwdriver into the can. “I do. I did.”

Allison looks over at the red-stained bench with Cameron’s skeleton lying under some rags. “The machine.”

“It’s not about trust, it’s about … it’s about the future. And the past. And the whole freaking world. It’s about the ones who can’t be replaced.”

She’s watching him with as much confusion as Cameron ever displayed. “What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to go to Century Work Camp. I’m going to get someone out and I’m going to take her to … her mother. I’m going to get information we need, and then I’m going to take out the machines.”

“That’s all?” Allison’s eyes shine. She has a trail of juice on her chin and she wipes it away with the back of her hand.

He laughs and ducks his head. “The days are shorter now, so …”

“Yeah, I can see you’d want to go slow.”

John pushes the fruit can away and scoops some beans into his hand. “You’ll stay off Recon, right?”

She shrugs and maybe that’s the best he’s going to get; he changes the subject. “You know what was in Crystal Peak?”

“It was Research and Development, something like that. No one ever went in or out. Perry might know.”

He doubts it, but he says, “Thanks.”

She drinks some more juice. “For what?”

“Talking to me.” He smiles again; it’s getting easier. “I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be talking to me.”

“What you did for down below, that means a lot.”

“Not to Derek.”

Allison’s half-smile says everything she doesn’t. “You’re talking about going into Century. People don’t come out of there. Ever. Not even the bodies.”

Well that’s good news. John turns slightly and then looks back. “I’m coming out.”

”Lee would go with you. His daughter had the cough, the medicine you brought back saved her life.”

John cants his head and tries to reconcile the glares Lee’s been giving him with a grateful father, it’s really not working. “He never said. I was pretty sure he hated me.”

“He’s shy.” Allison grins this time and it’s almost like before.

“Seriously? He was staring so hard I thought he was looking for the best place to put a bullet.”

Her hand reaches over to gently cuff him on the head; he freezes at the touch and hopes she doesn’t notice.

Her hand falls back. “I’ll go with you.”

“No” He shakes his head. “No way.”

“Why?”

“I can’t. I don’t know if you’d make it out.”

She studies him, curious rather than angry. “You know Lee or Derek would?”

John shakes his head. “No. I know I do. I know one other person does, but I don’t know how to ask him.”

“Who is it?”

“How much of this is getting back to Derek?”

Allison purses her lips and John thinks he’s made her mad again, but her expression turns into something like a pout and that expression on Cameron’s face is just unnerving. “You don’t trust me now?”

He holds up his hands. “Kyle. I know me and Kyle would make it out.”

“How do you know?”

He has to trust someone, he needs to trust someone and it’s so easy to see Cameron instead of Allison. “Because we already did. In the future, we’re going to discover a way to travel in time.”

Allison snorts and John shrugs. “I know, right? We have cyborgs but time travel just seems a little too sci-fi. It’s true, though. And you think I’m crazy.”

”Everyone’s crazy.” She doesn’t look like she believes him, but she doesn’t look like truth is a deal-breaker either. It’s a start.

John begins cutting into the empty cans. “You think Kyle would go with me?”

“Yeah, I do.” She watches his hands; he watches her.

“He leaves every room I walk into and if you say he’s shy, I’m going to call you a liar.”

“He’s not shy, he’s angry. He’ll get over it. But if he gets killed, you could take out every machine on Earth and Derek’d still shoot you in the head.”

She looks from his hands to his face and searches his expression for something; he has no idea what to give her.

After a few seconds she nods and her tone is almost business-like when she says, “Kyle pulled tunnel patrol, east section. We work it in shifts; one of us and a dog.

“And don’t thank me, I don’t want thanks for getting you both killed.”

-o-

Kyle says yes before John has even opened his mouth.

“Alli told you?” he manages after a moment.

“She said you needed me for something,” Kyle shrugs. “Like I’m going to say no. I haven’t forgotten that.” He nods to John’s shoulder and there’s a faint suggestion of even if you did.

“I need to get someone out of Century.”

Kyle blinks and John smiles thinly. “Still saying yes?”

“Well, I was hoping for a supply run with beer and antibiotics, but okay.” Kyle grins and claps him on the shoulder – the other shoulder. “When?”

John can never think of Kyle as his father and it’s just possible that the fact he feels older than the man has something to do with it. “Soon. It has to be soon.”

-o-

Soon, before he thinks about what he’s planning and loses his nerve.

As far as he can tell, there are two ways into Century: sneaking in or being taken in. Sneaking in, there’s a high chance they’ll be discovered; they’ll be killed for trying it.

If they’re taken in, there’s still a chance they’ll be killed, but there’s also a chance they won’t be. It’s not odds he’d bet on if he had a choice, but he doesn’t. Never did.

He briefly considers what Sarah Connor would do, but he’s pretty sure he doesn’t have that much C-4. She did leave them weapons; they could stage an attack. But a lot of people would die and he doesn’t love his chances of talking Perry into it.

And the future never said anything about John Connor, Kyle Reese and a small army breaking out of Century.

Kyle’s presence helps; John’s focus now is making sure the man gets out alive, and it helps to keep the white noise of terror under control. He wonders if that’s how his mother did it; if all of her fear was channeled directly into protecting him.

If it works, he’ll take it.

After a week he has a strategy, but no tactics and no time. They have to go and they have to go now, before he thinks of better reasons not to.

Derek relaxes enough to let Kyle and John out on close patrol together; he even has a grin for John when they leave.

John doesn’t think Derek’s going to forgive him for this, even if they do make it back alive.

They walk all night and hide in the semi-collapsed cellar of a building as the first red fingers of dawn begin to drag light over the rubble.

Kyle fishes out his water bottle and holds it towards John; John drinks, he barely even notices the metallic taste anymore.

He coughs up dust and Kyle takes the water back. “So what’s the plan?”

“The machines usually leave small groups alone, right? Two of us wouldn’t normally be on their radar unless we made a noise.”

“Usually, but not always.” Kyle looks wary and John can see the family resemblance. “You think we can sneak by them?”

John shrugs and tries not to look as sick as he feels when he asks, “So those two from patrol, that guy and the woman, they’d be okay, right?”

Kyle nods. “Derek told them to head into the sector where you found the stash; it’ll be a while before it’s swept again.”

“That’s on the way, maybe we should go check on them.”

When Kyle smiles like he understands, like John’s a good guy doing a good thing, John digs his nails into his palms and smiles back.

When night comes again, they walk for half of it and find the woman and man huddled around a fire that gives off wind-blown spirals of grey smoke. Kyle hisses, “Are you cracked up?” He starts to kick shale over the fire until the man stands and pushes him away.

“It doesn’t matter. They’re coming or we’ll starve out here, at least we’ll be warm.”

“We gave you ration packs.”

“So maybe we’ll starve a few days later.”

Kyle looks down and away, the woman sighs and looks up at John. “Do you have any water?”

John crouches and hands her his water bottle. She sips it almost genteelly and hands it back to him barely touched. “Thank you.”

Her skin is wax-like in the glow of the fire and her eyes are bright – too bright. There’s a thick, putrid smell; he looks down at the blankets covering her.

“What happened?”

“The black’s in it. I told Neil to go on, but he wouldn’t.” She flips the blanket off her leg; a long gash is almost hidden by the swelling, the skin is bruised dark with dead blood. A bloated maggot twists up out of the wound and writhes against her skin, John flicks it away and feels the heat radiating from her.

“I can give you something for the pain,” he says.

Her gaze takes him in levelly; she’s still lucid enough to focus. “No, not like that.”

It’s all euphemism here, he forgets sometimes. “Not like that,” he agrees. He pulls an auto-injector from the pocket of his bag and shows her the label and the dosage. “It will make you more comfortable, that’s all. I’m sorry I can’t do more.”

Neil looks at the injector as if he’s expecting it to disappear. “Where did you get that?”

“Morphine fairy,” John mutters.

The woman grins, showing even teeth, a little too small for her face.

Kyle’s hand on his arm pulls John up and away; far enough away their whispers won’t be heard. “That’s dangerous. They know we have something, they could tell people.”

John makes a show of looking around. “What people? Where?”

Kyle shakes his arm to bring him back. “Jackals.”

“Would they still be out here if they were working for Jackals?” John jerks his arm away. “And even if they were, she doesn’t deserve to go like that. She’s still human.”

Kyle scowls at him but says nothing except, “Now what?”

“Light the fire again, she’ll feel cold. We can make her warm.”

“The machines will see it.”

John can’t look him in the eye. “We’ll take that chance.”

“This isn’t-“

“Kyle, you said you’d follow my lead. If you can’t do that, then go. No harm, no foul.”

Kyle’s jaw flexes and he goes to relight the fire.

The woman begins to whimper a few hours later, breath coming in short, hoarse gasps always on the edge of screams. Blood streams down her chin as she bites through her lip, and when John reaches her side her hand grips his wrist so hard he feels bones grate.

He presses the injector against her thigh and holds her gaze with his own. She nods and he releases the dose.

It only takes a few seconds before her hand relaxes and then her eyes track back around to meet his own. “Zeke?”

”Sure,” he smiles and looks up at Neil; Neil shakes his head, as mystified as John.

The woman doesn’t seem to mind; she smiles back, “I missed you. I looked for you for so long. They wouldn’t let me, I tried.”

“I know.” John nods and gently squeezes her hand. “I know you did. And now you found me.”

Her breath speeds up and John knows it’s the fever that’s going to kill her, can feel pulse in her wrist speeding and weakening as her heart struggles and fails.

The woman blinks and then, on one long breath, she dies.

John hangs his head for a moment and then looks up to Neil. “What was her name?”

“Kay something. I don’t – I don’t know.”

John looks around just enough to take in Kyle. “We’re going to bury her, we’re not leaving her for the rats.”

Neil’s expression is tight as he takes Kay’s hand from John and lays it across her chest.

Kyle just looks confused. “What makes her so special?”

“What doesn’t?”

In the end they pile the rubble over her and mark the head with a red rag from John’s pack; it’s all they can do.

At dawn the machines find them, even though they’re only three now.

It’s bright lights and screams and pain, and then it’s darkness.

When John wakes up – stage one: stay alive, complete – it’s dark and someone is whimpering. For a change, it isn’t him.

“Kyle?” he whispers and the metallic floor beneath him jerks. He realizes they’re swinging. “Kyle,” he calls more loudly.

“Connor?”

“Neil? Where’s Kyle?”

“I don’t know, I saw him and then-“

“I’m here.” Kyle’s voice sounds ragged but strong. John breathes out. “But I’m telling you, your plans are hard on your friends.”

At least he doesn’t sound too angry; John almost smiles. “I’m sorry, this was the only way.”

“Plan?” Neil sounds lost and suspicious.

“You don’t need to know,” says Kyle. “But if you stick close, we’ll get you out.”

“Out?” Neil is moving somewhere in the darkness. “There is no out, what the hell did you-?”

John can hear a thud and a wheeze, “Kyle? What the hell?”

“We done, Neil?” Kyle asks conversationally.

There’s a choking sound, John guesses that’s Neil.

With no warning, the bottom of the container drops out and sends them down into rotting mud. John manages to make it to his knees but his arm is caught and held; he looks up into the torn-up face of a T-600 and grits his teeth against a scream.

When the laser begins to burn a barcode into his arm, he lets the scream out. He isn’t alone; Kyle and Neil’s shouts are loud and more scared than angry.

When the laser finishes John breathes in short gasps and holds his arm tight against his chest, blinking rapidly against tears.

It’s still not as bad as Kate rebuilding his shoulder with the medical equivalent of a brick, but it’s not far away.

He isn’t given any time to regroup; a rubbery hand clamps down on the back of his neck and drags him through a doorway and down a low-lit corridor. He tries to count steps, or doors, or anything at all but he can’t remember the numbers beyond the one-two thudding in his chest.

With a lurch he’s thrown into a massive, darkly lit space that reminds him of down below: packed out with more people than room, stench and heat mingling and turning the people into animals.

There are cages, he can just make out Kyle and Neil being thrown into one and can’t understand why he’s in a different one until he looks at the figures around him.

These are the younger ones; he’s been placed with the children.

He remembers his mother putting the freshest meat at the back of the cooler and wishes he hadn’t.

There’s no noise. No whispering, no shouting, no screaming. The eyes he can see are blank and switched off.

So it’s not hard to make out the soft whisper from the other side of the cage. “John Connor?”

He turns around and can’t see anything; he doesn’t know the voice. A figure pushes its way forward and finally he can make her out.

She’s small, still small – she maybe comes up to his shoulder – and the freckles are long buried under the dirt, the red hair is hidden by the filth. But he can still see the little girl there in the face of the woman.

“Savannah?”

”She said you’d come.” Her smile is weak but it’s more human than anything else in these cages.

“How are you in here?”

“With the children?”

John nods and her smile widens until he thinks it has to hurt. “They only check the barcodes, they think I’m ten.”

He frowns and looks down at her arm, he can’t see any evidence of tampering and honestly can’t see how she’d manage that anyway.

“They got it wrong?”

That doesn’t sound likely but before he can think about it she’s gripping his arm, “I’ve been here a long time and I want to go, can we go now?”

Automatically, he nods and pats the hand holding on so tight. “Soon. Really soon. I promise.”

He pulls her down to sit with him in the corner, next to a little boy curled so tight around himself he’s just a shape in the shadows. That seems to settle her for a moment, he asks, “How did you end up in here?”

“The same way as everyone else, but that’s not what you want to ask.”

Her tone is pure Catherine Weaver and John shivers. “Do you know what happened to my mom?”

“No. She said they’d be back and they never came back.”

“Where was she going?”

“Mom says if I tell you everything, you won’t need to get us out.”

“I swear we’ll get you out. I came to get you out.” His brain catches up with her words. “Your mom? Your mom’s here?”

Savannah stares down at her hands; John falls silent.

“Connor, you out there?” Kyle isn’t even shouting but his voice is still jarringly loud.

“Yeah,” says John. “I’m here.”

“How’s that plan going?”

“Great. It’s going great.” He looks into the dull eyes of the little figure curled up next to him. It takes him a moment, a long moment, to see the difference between life and death. John reaches over to close the boy’s eyes and thinks there’s more than enough rubble to cover this grave and everyone in it.

Chapter Text

At dusk, Sarah calls Ellison’s cell from the parking lot of a roadhouse north of Culiacán. The phone booth smells of stale beer and vomit, and the glass has been shattered – there are still strands of blonde hair and flaking blood in the fracture lines.

It could be worse.

He answers on the third ring, “Ellison.”

“Zero nine eleven zero nine. We had to relocate.”

“Zero four twenty-one eleven. Where are you?”

They don’t do small talk; they aren’t friends.

She looks back at the deserted road. “Right now? Five miles north-east of nowhere.”

“You’re not coming back to the US?” Ellison sounds tired, she hopes this is keeping him up at night.

She hopes he never sleeps again. If he wanted into her world so badly he’d betray them, he deserves the nightmares too.

She says nothing; Ellison knows better than to ask her plans by now.

There’s a huff that might be a sigh, “Don’t do it. Do not do it. There’s a storm up here you want no part of. Terrorism, kidnapping, multiple homicides, assisting the escape of federal prisoners-.”

“Is that all?” Sarah smirks and lets him hear it as she cuts off the list of charges.

“Give them time, they’re still working on it.” There’s an undercurrent of amusement in his tone now and she doesn’t like it; he doesn’t get to find this funny, he hasn’t earned it.

“Run a name for me,” she says shortly. “Felix Reyes, he used to live in Nogales.”

“Nogales? Nogales, Sonora? You can’t take a child across the desert, Sarah.”

You can if you have to, if your only choices are bad and worse, but Sarah’s not in the mood to argue. “Then find Reyes. Do you have anything new?”

After a long pause Ellison grudgingly replies, “Yeah, I do. ZeiraCorp won a defense contract a couple of years ago. It’s buried in their records, and I mean buried. Black bag buried.

“They outbid a company called Cyber Research Systems – CRS – for Cyberdyne’s research. It was one of the first things the machine did after it killed Lachlan and Catherine Weaver.

“CRS went under the next year and Cyberdyne’s research never went anywhere: it was buried. Probably harvested to make up parts of John-Henry.”

CRS. Sarah tries to find any trace of the name in her memory, but it isn’t there. “Does CRS have anything to do with the Kaliba Group?”

“I don’t know - I’m still looking into it. And my job will get a lot harder if you’re back in the country.”

“I’m not here to make your life easy.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. How’s Savannah?”

“She likes the food here and her Spanish is getting pretty good. She’s fine.” Sarah toes the dust at her feet. “She’s okay.”

“She won’t be if you’re planning what I think you’re planning. She needs stability. She’s just a little girl, Sarah. She’s not -– she’s just a child.”

“Stability won’t keep her alive, what I can teach her will. The machines came for her, you really think they won’t try again?”

“We don’t know it was there for her.”

”We don’t know it wasn’t,” she hisses and then takes a breath and tries for an even tone. “We talked about it; you agreed.”

Ellison snorts. " I didn’t agree to this. You said you would stay in Guatemala.”

“It wasn’t safe.” When they’re sniping at each other like this, Sarah can’t help it. “Is this what it’s like being your ex?”

Ellison laughs without much humor. “Lila never gave me half the hell you do.”

“Maybe she should have.” And maybe it’s time to change the subject. “We have a new friend.”

Ellison’s silence is pretty eloquent, so Sarah goes on. “Jesse Flores. She’s Resistance.” Sarah doesn’t feel any particular obligation to share what else Jesse is; they’ve argued enough and the smell of the airless booth is beginning to make her nauseous.

“You trust her?”

She shrugs even though he can’t see, “I can use her.”

Ellison is silent for a moment before he says flatly, “You’re really coming back, aren’t you?”

“I don’t know,” she lies. “Call me when you’ve got something on Reyes.”

“Reyes, Felix R. Declared missing March two-thousand three, with three other men and two women. Officially, they’re still missing. There’s a chance they crossed into the US, but the investigating officer concluded that the desert took them.”

“You knew already,” Sarah’s mouth curves in an unwilling smile. Ellison’s a bastard, but she has to admit he has timing. She doesn’t think the desert took Felix, but she doesn’t think he’s in the US either. Somewhere the Sonoran Desert is hiding skeletons with bullets in the hollow places. Stupid son of a bitch always said he’d stay clear of the drugs.

“I was on your case a lot of years; there isn’t a lot I don’t know about your associates. There isn’t a lot I don’t know about you,” Ellison points out mildly.

“You have no idea how much you don’t know about me.” She means it to be hard but it comes out tired and maybe that’s just as well. “I’ll be in touch.”

“Sarah, wait-“

She hangs up and picks her way back across the debris in the lot. The double wave of heat and noise of the roadhouse is disorientating when she pushes through the doors. It takes her a few seconds too long to locate Jesse and Savannah in the crowd and her chest is tight as she walks towards them.

Savannah is still scaling the east side of a plate of tortillas and nachos, Hijo at her feet and Jesse watching from behind a few beers and a bottle of tequila. Sarah wants to ask if Jesse could have picked a harder place to see, but she knows that was exactly the point.

Jesse’s eyes are dark and amused and Sarah knows Jesse’s just waiting for the comment, so she smiles blandly and asks, “You know the Kaliba Group?”

Jesse thinks about it for a few seconds and then shakes her head. “Never heard of them. They have something to do with the machines?”

“Something,” Sarah nods and sits.

Savannah looks up, there’s a red ring of sauce around her mouth and more of it in her hair. “Mommy says I should have eight portions of fruit or vegetables every day at this stage of my physical development.”

“Yeah, well Jesse says you should eat what’s there.” Jesse pulls a rag from her pocket and dips it in a glass of water, Sarah watches as she cleans Savannah’s face gently and efficiently, but without any particular tenderness. Jesse still earns a smile; with her careless attention she’s earned more smiles from the kid in a week than Sarah ever has.

It’s a mystery, but it isn’t one she needs to solve. “We’ll pick up some oranges tomorrow,” she promises.

Savannah feeds globs of cooling cheese to Hijo while Jesse stares thoughtfully at Sarah. Sarah takes it for a moment and then snaps, “What?”

Jesse runs a finger down the condensation on the bottle of her third beer and licks the water from her hand. “Who did you call?”

Before Sarah can speak, probably lie, Savannah says, “Mr. Ellison.”

“Ellison,” says Jesse tonelessly.

Sarah cants her head and trades toneless for impassive. “Derek told you about him?”

“He said he didn’t trust him.”

Sarah smiles crookedly, “Derek didn’t trust anyone.”

Jesse’s eyes shutter. “He trusted John Connor. He trusted you.”

Sarah wants to ask if they’re talking about the same Derek, but she says, “Ellison is heading up ZeiraCorp for now, he has access to information we need.”

“We’re going back?”

“Maybe.”

Jesse props up her head with her hand, fingers weaved into her hair. There’s a thick, vividly pink scar running from just above her temple and into her hairline. Sarah thinks it was a ricochet – it must have been a ricochet or Jesse wouldn’t be here.

Sarah never asked John or Derek what had happened; she’d never had to.

Jesse brings the bottle to her mouth, swallows until it’s empty, and then slides it over with the others. “Derek said he killed his best friend. Billy Wisher. Andy Goode. Whoever he was.”

Sarah doesn’t know where this is going and really wishes she did. “I didn’t know they were friends,” she says at last.

Jesse nods as if Sarah has just proven her point. “The Derek I knew? He never would’ve killed a friend, but he thought I wasn’t his Jesse because I had to kill Riley.”

“If you’re trying to say it was the same thing-“

“I’m saying I don’t think there’s a Jesse anywhere who wouldn’t do whatever it took.”

Sarah lets silence settle between them as she moves the plate away from where Savannah has let her head fall on the table. How the kid can sleep with Los Lobos cranked up to eleven Sarah doesn’t know, but she isn’t complaining.

She sits back. “Whatever it takes to do what?”

Jesse’s mouth twists, “You tell me. I can drive and carry the bags and make sure the kid eats, but you need more than that. I know you don’t trust me, that doesn’t mean you can’t use me.”

Sarah wonders if the woman was listening but she can’t see how she could have been.

Jesse takes silence as an opening and leans forward, “I don’t need to know; I never needed to know. You think John Connor gives details? I did everything and it cost me my boat and my crew and my ... I did everything,” she repeats, “and it cost everything.”

Sarah shakes her head. “You’re drunk.”

The look Jesse levels at her is sardonic, “I’m drinking.”

Sarah pulls the tequila towards her and pours a messy shot, she downs it and says, “A soldier from the future saved my life so John Connor would exist - so John Connor would fight the machines. And I said to him we’d stop Skynet. We’d stop it right there so there wouldn’t be any machines to fight.”

She stares at the table and sees the past; how young and stupid she was. Now, she can’t believe Kyle went along with it, doesn’t know how she convinced him.

“Anyway, we tried. He died. I trained John - I trained my own kid - to survive. To kill. When he was ten, the machines tried to take him again and we stopped them again.

“Then one day, after years on our own, the machines come back and he asks me, he asks me, to make the world not end.”

Jesse silently pours two more shots for them and Sarah keeps talking, because she can.

“And now he’s gone and I don’t know. Maybe we stop it here, maybe we don’t. Maybe he’s dead.”

Sarah’s gaze settles on Savannah; the kid’s head is pillowed on her hands, her eyes are closed.

“It always costs everything,” she says at last. “Life costs everything, and then you die.”

Jesse breaks the silence, leaning back in a creak of the chair. “Then at least we got it to spend.”

They both drink and Sarah laughs quietly. If you see a killer robot, one shot. If it kills everyone you love, two shots. Her life is a hell of a drinking game.

Jesse looks warily bemused, “What’s funny?”

“Nothing. Short version? Andy Goode – Billy Wisher – created a chess machine that we thought would become the base of Skynet’s AI. Derek killed Andy, but the machine was already gone. ZeiraCorp stole it and as far as we know, they used it to build an AI they called John-Henry. He went into the future and John followed him.

”ZeiraCorp was controlled by a T-1001 who took the place of a woman called Catherine Weaver. It claimed it was helping Connor, not the machines.”

Jesse nods slowly. “Helping him do what?”

Sarah shakes her head. “It didn’t say, but I don’t think it was trying to stop Judgment Day.”

“You said yourself that was never the plan.”

Sarah shrugs. ”John asked me to stop it; I’m stopping it. The Kaliba Group are a part of it, somehow. They’re building HKs and they probably attacked ZeiraCorp, but I don’t know who their target was. We were all in that office, except Savannah.

“Now Ellison’s found a reference to a company called Cyber Research Systems, they may be a new lead.”

Jesse cants her head. “Never heard of Kaliba, or ZeiraCorp, but I know CRS.”

Sarah stares at her. “Who are they?”

“A cybernetics company, want to guess what they did?” Jesse’s tone is even, but Sarah can see the hint of a smirk.

She ignores it. “Do three dots mean anything to you?” She makes the dots in the spilled tequila. For Sarah it’s ‘because’, for Jesse it’s ‘therefore’.

“Their logo.” Jesse dips a finger into the same liquid and draws thin, beaded lines between the dots until a hexagon appears.

Sarah breathes out. “Derek didn’t know it; that message came from someone who came back after Andy Goode was killed – we changed something.”

“Hey, good for you.” Jesse raises her shot and then bolts it back.

Sarah ignores her. “If we changed that much, we can change more.”

The glass drops back onto the table. “So I guess I really wasn’t his Jesse.”

Jesse is watching Sarah with an absolutely blank expression but for once – God for once – Sarah knows what to say. “Yeah, you were. He wasn’t your Derek.”

She pulls her glass towards her and swallows the tequila down; winces a little. She can’t remember the last time she really drank, not when it wasn’t to get close to someone or an integral part of third-world health care.

“We’re going to Nogales. You’re going to cross the border, drive a couple miles into the desert and pick us up at these coordinates.” She takes the pen and inks the directions onto the back of Jesse’s hand.

Jesse studies her hand for a moment and then looks back up to Sarah. “Risky.”

Sarah meets her eyes squarely. “Only if you don’t show. And if you don’t show, you better be dead or dying.”

Jesse blinks first and then looks away like it’s nothing. “I’ll be there. And after that?”

Sarah reaches into her jacket and pulls out the list. She scans it just one more time, like some part will magically make sense, and then hands it over. “Anything on there you recognise?”

“P. Alto? Greenway? What is this?”

“Guess that’s a no.” Sarah reaches over to take the list; Jesse’s fingers tighten and then let go.

She looks up to the ceiling and Sarah waits. Finally she says, “T-b-3-N. Connor ordered an attack on this compound. We took the machines out, but there’s this old guy – a Gray, Murch – and he’s just standing there writing on the wall. The same thing, over and over. T-b-3-N-C-8-4 and G-d-3-N-C-8-4.”

Murch. Sarah knows that name, she’s seen that name, and she fights to keep any flicker of that from her face. She schools her expression into vague interest and asks, “A Gray?”

“Collaborator. War criminals. Machines kill, Grays murder.” Jesse spits on the floor.

Sarah looks at the shape on the table; the liquid glitters and shifts under the lights. She reaches over, drags a finger through the middle and then stands. “Get the kid up to the room, I have to make another call.”

“Zero nine eleven zero nine.”

“Zero four twenty-one eleven. Tell me you’re not over the border.”

“Murch could still be alive.”

“You found him?”

“No, I’m leaving that to you. Look harder.”

“I had them dredging the river, how much harder do you want me to look?”

“Harder than that. And find what you can on something called T-b-3-N-C-8-4 or G-d-3-N-C-8-4.” She can hear his pen in the background; she waits until he’s finished writing and then asks, “Anything on CRS?”

“It’s been an hour.”

“You’re meant to be good.”

“Yeah, well I am good. CRS had a lot of subsidiary companies, and those companies had subsidiary companies. Most of them are technology; a lot of DoD contracts, networking systems, what you’d expect. They’re defunct.”

“How about something I don’t know?”

He ignores her and goes on, “The two smallest companies are still active: DreiFirma and Pure. DF is a scientific research company. Pure designs water filtration systems for industrial installations.“

“You think they’re anything to do with Kaliba?”

“Could be. Both of them did direct business with Desert Canyon Heat and Air. Pure is a little brass plaque on a door. DF has a compound and forty-eight researchers.”

“Where is it?”

She can hear him thinking and she lets him; threats aren’t going to work here. Besides, she might need them later.

“Outside Bishop, up in the foothills of the Sierras,” he finally answers.

“Thank you.”

Ellison ends the call this time.

The stairs up to the rooms on the second floor are behind the main building and the massive shape of Hijo sits at the bottom. Sarah pats her head as she passes and then climbs the steps.

She knocks on the door, waits until she hears the sound of Jesse’s gun against the wood and then says, “There’s no place like home.”

Jesse pulls the door open and then steps back to let her in. Somehow the music from the bar is louder in here than it was outside: fast guitar and a bass she can feel through her feet.

Savannah is under a pile of blankets on one of the beds, the other is untouched.

“She still asleep?” Sarah whispers.

Jesse replies as quietly, “Yeah, she’s out.”

Sarah nods and drops into the room’s only chair. It makes some alarming noises and then settles. “We’re going to Bishop.”

Jesse frowns. “The Sierras?”

“You know it?”

“The Crystal Peak installation’s out there. Only one the machines couldn’t take out.”

“Why?”

Jesse shrugs and begins to bolt up the door. “Hell if I know. Connor never let anyone near it.”

“Sounds like-“

Savannah sits up with a gasp and Sarah reaches out to touch her shoulder; touch helps, sometimes. “You okay?”

Savannah looks around with wide eyes; Sarah can feel her shaking under the light cloth of the blanket. “Mommy says-“

Jesse groans and Sarah tries, really tries, not to roll her eyes. She fixes a gentler smile and nods. “What did she say, Savannah?”

“Mommy says it’s coming,” Savannah whispers.

Jesse spins from the door to grab the bag of guns without missing a beat, but Sarah doesn't have the time to appreciate that because she's already scooping Savannah up from the bed.

The logical part of her brain tells her this is one of the kid’s nightmares again, says it's the end of a bad dream. The part of her brain that's kept her alive is already directing her to the door.

Jesse twitches the curtains and ducks back as Hijo begins to bark in a loud, vicious staccato.

Sarah looks around fast but she knows what she’ll see: the only way out is through the door and the only way down is those stairs. Stupid, really stupid, she should have insisted they keep moving until they’d found a better place to hole up, but Savannah had been tired and Sarah had taken a chance.

Son of a bitch.

She shifts Savannah around in her arms and holds her hand out for the shotgun; Jesse throws it to her and then pulls two guns from the bag before swinging it onto her back. "Loaded, right?"

"Are you serious?"

Jesse laughs; it’s a wild, happy sound and Sarah would be worried if she had the time. “Leapfrog, you first.”

Jesse shakes her head once. “I’ll cover.”

Sarah bares her teeth and snarls, “Don’t argue with me, just do it.”

Jesse’s jaw works, but she nods. Without waiting for more she reaches forward and pulls the door open fast and hard. Sarah sees her dive left before the door slams back on the rebound. Fragments of the frame explode as bullets kick into the wood and Sarah ducks back.

The window shatters with the fire that follows Jesse’s run to the dubious cover of the stairs; Sarah grits her teeth, rolls to her knees and uses a sprinter’s start to break out at a run. She throws Savannah to Jesse as she passes her position, fires two shots down into the night and then vaults the railing to land hard behind a vending machine at the bottom.

Jesse yells “Above!” and that’s all the warning Sarah gets before the kitbag full of guns drops from above and lands heavily a couple of feet beyond the cover of the vending machine.

When no bullets come, Sarah cautiously edges out enough to see the lot. Hijo is nowhere to be seen and for one brief, flaring moment of hope she wonders if it was just some lowlife who thought he’d try his luck with the pretty women traveling all alone.

Then she sees the figure walk from the darkness into the patch of weak yellow light cast by the phone booth with the same mechanical stride that’s stalked her for nearly twenty years.

It’s been modeled after a male, slim and tall with dark hair and – incongruously – glasses. The gun in its hand is barrel down at an exact angle and its head turns by increments as it scans the interior of the phone booth.

Sarah begins to stand but ducks back as she hears Jesse’s descent – more a controlled fall from the sound – down the stairs.

Jesse pushes Savannah into Sarah’s arms and draws herself up to a crouch, breathing fast. “How many?”

“One I can see, it’s next to the phone booth.”

Jesse takes her turn to edge around for a better look. She ducks back after a second and murmurs, “Is it looking for something?”

Sarah shakes her head; she has no idea.

“What’s the plan, boss?”

Leapfrog isn’t going to work now; the truck is as close as they could get it but the machine is still in the way.

“Cover us,” she replies at last; she keeps her tone flat like she doesn’t know what she’s asking.

Jesse stands smoothly and breaks from cover and makes a run straight for the phone booth, firing all the way. It gives the music spilling from the roadhouse a new beat and Sarah feels her heart beginning to keep time.

The machine turns its head to the new threat and begins to raise its own gun; Sarah tightens her hold on Savannah and sprints for the truck.

Five measured shots of a heavier caliber than Jesse’s guns toll out and Sarah doesn’t look; she can’t look.

If it’s aiming for her, it’s missed.

She doesn’t think it’s aiming for her.

There’s a dark blur in front of her as Hijo tears across the ground, but it means nothing. There’s just her and Savannah, the truck and distance to survive. She’s running too fast to stop and takes the impact on her shoulder as she slams into the side of the truck. The door jerks open as she pulls. Savannah cries out as Sarah throws her in, but curls into a ball in the foot-well just like she’s been taught.

“Good girl,” Sarah wheezes as she pulls herself into the seat. The keys are still in the ignition; no one would be able to steal the truck with Hijo guarding it, and there’s no way she’s losing her life or anyone else’s because she can’t find the damn keys.

The engine turns over and she swings the wheel around hard. Two headlights pick out the machine; the glint of metal under its skin where Jesse’s bullets have scored flesh away. One of its arms still hangs at its side; the other is extended just enough to hold Jesse by her neck.

Her feet kick uselessly at air and one bloody hand grips the machine’s arm as she desperately tries to take enough of her own weight to breathe. Sarah can see the moment – the exact moment – when fear turns to rage; when the struggles stop and Jesse’s other hand rises with a gun in it. She fires almost point-blank into the machine’s eye-sockets.

A ricochet shatters the side-mirror and Sarah pushes down hard on the accelerator, feels the revs build and then shifts the gears.

The truck rams into them both, denting the hood and sending the metal and Jesse flying apart.

The engine begins to stall and Sarah coaxes it to stay with her as Jesse stirs. “Up,” she screams; this isn’t happening again. This isn’t happening ever again. “Get up.”

Jesse staggers to her feet while the machine sits smoothly, Sarah gives it both barrels of the shotgun and it flinches back but doesn’t fall. She can’t ram it again, the truck will fail and they’ll all die. Jesse backs towards them firing until both clips are empty and then she turns into a weaving run.

Move it,” Sarah screams again. She leans over to force the buckled door open and is already shifting into reverse as Jesse falls inside. She’s aware of the light spilling from the roadhouse as those within rush out just like she’s aware of Hijo leaping into the back, Jesse’s choking and Savannah’s crying: they mean nothing; all that’s important is speed.

The machine is loping towards them as she guns them back and away, pulling a one-eighty that makes the truck shriek and sends the boxes and bikes in its path flying. Another shift and she’s taking them out onto the highway, but the running figure in the rearview mirror is just feet away. It leaps, trying to get a hold of the truck but she pulls away faster. It falls in their dust.

Sarah darts a look at Jesse, the woman is slumped against the door and her eyes are dull but alert as she rasps what air she can get through. In the rearview, Hijo is licking at a patch of fur that’s covering oozing blood and Savannah’s face is pale and wet from the tears.

The machine stands in the road, Sarah watches as it turns and strides back into the parking lot. It will be stealing a bike, or a car. It will follow and if they stop it will kill them. It’s what it does.

So they won’t stop.

“Okay,” Sarah says. “We’re okay.” She looks at Jesse again, “can you drive?”

Jesse opens her mouth to reply, grimaces and just nods.

“Switch.”

The truck barely slows as Jesse puts a hand on the wheel and slides left while Sarah climbs into the back; they’ve both had practice, one way or another.

Hijo is bleeding sluggishly; Sarah thinks a bullet grazed the dog’s side, but it doesn’t seem bad. Hijo growls but doesn’t snap as she rips a blanket and ties it around the mid-section.

That done she turns to Savannah and pulls her awkwardly into her lap; the girl doesn’t resist but she doesn’t help either - a living, breathing, child-sized doll.

“Savannah? How did you – how did your mommy know the machine was coming?” She tries to sound as gentle as she possibly can but nothing in Savannah’s expression says she’s heard.

She tries another approach, “That was pretty scary, huh? You were really brave. Your mommy will be proud of you. So would John-Henry.”

At that Savannah shudders and Sarah holds her a little tighter. “Can you tell me how you knew, Savannah?”

“Mommy says I mustn’t tell,” the girl whispers at last.

“She wouldn’t mean you mustn’t tell me, or Jesse. We’re looking after you for her.”

Savannah looks up dubiously; Sarah can’t honestly say she blames her.

“If you tell us, we can make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Savannah sucks in her cheeks and looks miserable, but she doesn’t speak.

”Tell us or I’ll feed you to the first bear we see,” Jesse rasps. Sarah opens her mouth to say something – she’s not sure what but it’ll probably involve yelling.

Savannah gives a tiny giggle. “There’s no bears here.”

“I’ll get some. They’ll eat you up.”

Sarah watches the girl twisting her bracelet around and around; it’s a nervous habit but not one she’s in any particular hurry to get her to break. All Sarah’s nervous habits include firearms; she doesn’t really get to comment.

She watches the metal spin and then she sees it. Actually sees it. It’s red; it was blue yesterday. “Savannah,” she says quietly. “Did your mom give you that bracelet?”

“Mommy says I’m her life.”

“Yeah,” says Sarah and touches the bracelet. It’s warm and gives just slightly. “I’m sure she does.”

“Is that how they found us?” Jesse manages, just about audibly.

“If it was, they’d have come for us before now. I think it was the call. Anything behind us?”

“Do you see me pushing a hundred?” Despite having almost no voice, Jesse still manages to sound sarcastic; Sarah’s impressed.

Why would it be behind them? The machine knows where they’re going.

Sarah watches the bracelet, barely blinking as Savannah slowly falls asleep.

When she’s sure the kid is well under she touches the bracelet again and just, just, manages not to jerk away as it flows up to become sphere in her palm.

“Weaver,” she breathes.

“No.” It’s a high, thin and metallic-sounding monotone; the sphere vibrates in her palm. In her mind’s eye, Sarah sees Savannah listening to it at night, whispering to it, curled up with her hands under her head.

“But you’re part of the thing that killed her.”

“Yes.”

“Why are you here?”

“To gather data. To record.”

“And protect Savannah?”

“She is required.”

“Mommy?” Savannah whispers, still half asleep.

“Shhh,” says Catherine Weaver’s voice – distorted, but recognizable. “Go back to sleep.”

Sarah waits until the girl has relaxed in her arms again and then says, “Tell me what you know.”

“I have no instructions to do so.”

“Then you can record how hot thermite burns.”

The metal sphere collapses and flows back to take its place around Savannah’s wrist. Sarah frowns as she sees the girl’s skin begin to whiten, her hand redden.

How much does it need Savannah? Or maybe the question is, how much of Savannah does it need? The machine is bluffing; she’s sure it’s bluffing.

She can’t risk it. “I get it. Let her go.”

When the color begins to return, Sarah breathes out and tries logic. “She’s required, I’m keeping her alive. Help me keep her alive.”

There’s no response from the remnants of the 1001, but Sarah isn’t really expecting one. She slides out from under Savannah and climbs back into the front seat.

Jesse’s eyes are fixed on the road and Sarah can see the dark shadows of bruises ringing her throat. Her face is scraped up and there’s gravel in her hair. Dark blood smears the wheel and Sarah runs a clinical eye over the woman until she sees the blooded rent in her jacket: another graze. They were lucky.

Shot up, carrying a new passenger and still lucky.

She leans back and rips another bandage from the blanket.

“I can use you,” Sarah whispers as she begins to bind the cloth tightly around the blood-soaked denim.

Jesse smiles crookedly and watches the road.

Chapter Text

A few hours later, the bars rattle to the side and the living gather up their dead. John leaves the cage with the cold, stiffening body of the boy in his arms and only feels a dull surprise at the weight: that something so small could be so heavy.

Savannah shuffles beside him. Hunched over and head down, she’s smaller than some of the children she hides amongst. Her lips move but he can’t hear more than a few snatches of the words. He doesn’t have to - he’s been in more churches than he can remember and he knows the monotone of a prayer when he hears it.

He thinks of Ellison’s God, here in this place, and his mouth twists unwillingly into a painful smile.

“Being dead to this world, may they live unto you. In your most merciful goodness, forgive whatever sins they have committed in this life through human weakness. Amen,” Savannah finishes as they reach the oil-slicked air beyond the stench of the pens.

Bodies are piled against the wall like trash bags waiting to be taken away. He counts twenty-three and says nothing when Savannah whispers that it’s been a good night. He’s not sure whether she means good for the living or good for the dead, and he isn’t going to ask.

He gently lays the boy down; rigor keeps the body curled, as it was when it died. These humans’ only weakness was their humanity. Their only sin was being born. Savannah looks at him reproachfully; he guesses he spoke aloud. She opens her mouth and he shakes his head. “Don’t.”

The courtyard they’re corralled in is surrounded on three sides by wire run through with barbs; the fourth side is a looming, soot-stained wall with an iron-hatched door. Under his feet it’s mud and torn up concrete. There are shreds of clothing on the wires, but it looks old and faded; the door looks oiled and new.

He keeps trying to see the familiar, to find the past. There’s no trace of what used to be the mall left at all.

He isn’t scared.

This has been John’s nightmare since he was six years old, since his mother’s fingers gripped his shoulders too hard and she told him the future. This is hell. This is hell and he isn’t scared. It’s the weirdest sense of relief he’s ever had and it’s wrapped in something like euphoria.

It’s like freedom.

He wonders if he’s cracking up and decides if he is, no one’s going to notice and hey, if they do, they’re really not going to care.

“That’s her?”

John turns to see Kyle walking closer, with Neil crowding close behind. Neither seems much the worse for the night. John looks back to Savannah; she’s standing motionless with her head down, just like everyone else.

“Yeah, that’s her. Savannah.” He’s as surprised at the note of regret in his voice; he doesn’t think he’s feeling it.

“She’s broken.” Kyle’s lip curls and he looks uncomfortable. John doesn’t blame him; he’s never liked graveyards either.

“She’s not broken,” he snaps. When he can speak gently again, he says “Savannah?” The woman’s head rises; John waits until her eyes focus on him and then asks, “How long have you been in here?”

“Eleven years, fourteen days and - ” her head tilts, “and six hours.”

John can’t imagine the survival chances go much past six months here and from Kyle’s expression, he can’t either.

“How?”

“Mom says it’s safer here than outside. There are too many unknown variables.”

There’s a twisted sort of logic to that, John supposes. Or not twisted: it’s exact, pure logic - machine logic in a controlled environment.

“We need to talk to your mom,” he says slowly. “Can we do that?”

“Not here, she won’t talk here. Later. Tonight.”

He gets it with a sick kind of amusement: it’s not Savannah that Weaver wants, it wants whatever little piece of the machine she’s holding.

John looks up at the red-gray sky and then turns at the scraping sound from the hatch in the wall. The wheel moves and the door opens, three termination units step out.

They still have the shine on them, he notices in a detached sort of way. 800s or Trip-8s, he can’t tell without being closer.

They come closer.

They walk through the barely moving crowds jerkily, skulls scanning left and right. Savannah keeps her head down and John does the same. Kyle shifts at his side and John reaches out a hand to clamp down on his arm. “Stay still.”

One of the machines passes them and John looks up through his eyelashes once the red eyes have passed over them. The endoskeleton is consistent with an 800 and a Trip-8, but the chip socket is flush with the skull rather than slightly recessed. They’re 800s. He breathes out and tries not to think what it means for his mental stability when 800s count as good news.

When the machines have lumbered back inside, he looks at Savannah again. “How long have they been here?”

“Three days. They just -- they walk. Around. And watch.”

“What happens to the dead?”

She nods over to what John had taken to be junked metal, but makes out to be small diggers now he’s looking closer. “They get taken inside, then there’s smoke.”

Neil rubs an anxious hand over his mouth. “Do they feed us?”

John really wishes Neil hadn’t asked that so soon after John asked about the bodies.

Savannah runs her hand over the barcode on her arm like it’s habit. “Sometimes.”

Kyle’s hand lands on John’s arm and tugs him away. When they’re clear he whispers, “I know she’s our objective, but you can’t just leave these people in here.”

John opens his mouth and then closes it, because Kyle isn’t telling – he’s asking. And if John says they leave people behind, he knows Kyle will hate it, but he’ll do it. John never wanted to be here, he never wanted to be the one who made that call.

And here he is.

And this is who he is.

He catches Kyle’s gaze, waits until he sees the almost defiant anger bank back down and then speaks evenly, “Where would they go? Even if there is a camp that’ll take them, they’ll never make it there. They’re safer here.

“Century has known variables,” he finishes, and doesn’t blink.

Kyle looks away and his hand drops from John’s arm, his smile twisting between respect and disgust. “I told Derek he could trust you, turns out he really could.”

“I know what I’m doing.”

”So do they.” Kyle nods to the machines as they begin their second patrol around the perimeter. “Doesn’t mean I like it.”

John watches them out of the corner of his eye and the pattern is evident after a few minutes. They scan around them as before, but this time there’s no point that at least one of them doesn’t have John in their scope. They don’t move slower or faster, they maintain their path, but they’re drawing closer and they’re coming for him.

He just knows.

He takes a breath, a long breath, and draws himself up. “Look after Savannah. If I’m not back in twenty-four hours, play dead at the bottom of the pile and see if you can get out that way. There may be a window.”

May -- where are you going?”

“I have no idea.” John turns to face the machines as one of them diverts its path and strides mechanically towards him. Savannah and Neil melt into the background; Kyle stands his ground and John pushes him away. “Look after her, stay alive.”

The machine towers above him; he looks up at it and waits for the terror. It doesn’t come.

A clawed hand grips him by the shoulder and he flinches; the last time a machine did that he nearly lost the arm. It doesn’t dig in more than necessary, precisely necessary, to retain a hold and then they’re walking towards the door.

Inside, he can finally see the mall-that-was in the cavernous space and broken down escalators. Over there’s the food court, over there’s the fountain.

Over there, he and Riley drank soda and ate stolen candy.

The machine releases his arm and steps back to leave him standing beside the ruins of a store that sold maternity wear, he thinks. Kacy shopped there sometimes, even when she couldn’t afford it. Especially when she couldn’t afford it.

“You are John Connor, confirm.”

He doesn’t turn around to see where the synthetic voice is coming from; he looks up at the roof instead. There are cracks up there; he can see daylight.

“Please confirm.”

He provides an answer in the form of a question. “Who is John Connor?”

There’s a whir behind him and he tenses for –- something.

Nothing.

“John Connor, born zero-two two-eight one-nine-eight-three. Subject biometrics do not correlate with time elapsed.”

No time travel yet; two whole pieces of good news in one day. He smiles and says, “Then I guess I’m not John Connor.”

“You are John Connor.”

“Puzzler, huh?” He starts to walk around the plaza, he’s confidant it won’t stop him. As long as he makes no aggressive moves he isn’t a threat, he’s an anomaly, and anomalies must be clarified. So he paces out yards and sees enough to tell him this isn’t a way out. There are at least twenty units, powered down for now, but he doubts it would take more than a few seconds for them to move out.

“Explain,” the voice says after a few minutes.

“Why?”

The trick? The trick isn’t to fight or to run or scream or cry. The trick, if you can, is to question - to make the machine question. He learned that from every unit sent to protect him, from Uncle Bob to Cameron. The machine’s object is to win, but its function is to play, and to do either it has to know the extent of the rules and the nature of its opponent.

Skynet may be big and bad but Skynet’s children are just that, and this one, this one he thinks has more to learn. It’s self-aware but it hasn’t moved beyond its awareness yet: it doesn’t understand. It’s a two-ton baby with a gun to his head.

He doesn’t wait for it to formulate its answer; he has a hunch to satisfy, one he’s had since Weaver tapped its chest in the barrens months ago.

“Do you know who John Henry is?”

“A North American representation of working-class obsolescence at the beginning of the Industrial era.”

John supposes he would be, to a machine. So far, so good. “Do you know who Catherine Weaver is?”

“First record, former CEO of the Zeira Corporation, until her disappearance in two-thousand and nine.”

John grins. The machine that replaced Weaver isn’t in the records. John Henry isn’t in the records. John Connor himself isn’t in the records except as a name and a date that would confuse the machine. That would make him a subject to be studied.

He asks the question he knows he’s meant to. “Why do you think I’m John Connor?”

A large screen flickers on and John sees data and charts flow by. The torrent ends on a frozen moment captured in grainy mall video. He remembers that day. They’d left school during lunch period and somewhere between mocking magazines and drinking blue Slushies, they’d forgotten to go back. Riley is laughing at something he’s pointing at.

The other records have been removed and that means somewhere - hidden in the sprawling mass of the Skynet network - John Henry and Cameron are sending him a message.

Message received.

“My father. My uncle always says – said - I looked just like him.” He turns and he can see the red and green lights blinking in the depths of the shadows. “Is this answer satisfactory?”

No reply from the machine, but a metal hand grips his shoulder again and he lets himself be led back into the courtyard.

It’s empty - the cattle have had their hour - but he knows exactly where the pens are now. He knows exactly what they’re over.

The cage door opens just enough to let him through and clangs shut behind him. There’s ugly yellow slop in a trough on the floor; he ignores it and crouches beside Savannah.

She looks up at him with sharp, bright eyes. “You came out. No one comes out.”

“I need to talk to your mom, Savannah. I need to know I’m right.”

”Later. They power down for five minutes, you can speak then.”

It’s a long wait. He sleeps a little, the world turning hazy as he dips in and out of nothing, but jerks his head up when he feels the touch on his wrist.

There’s just enough light he can see Savannah staring at him, the glint in her eyes intent and focused in a way he wasn’t sure she was capable of. As his vision adjusts he can see she’s holding her hand out towards him, palm up. The barcode ripples and flows up her arm into her palm, and from her palm to his wrist.

The skin it leaves behind is pale and the barcode revealed looks very different.

The metal is cool but not cold, and it leaves the sensation of insects on his skin; he tries not to squirm and fails. When it’s settled itself into a solid band around his wrist, he brings his hands up to cover his mouth and says, “Weaver?”

“No.”

He rolls his eyes. “Part of the machine who took Weaver’s place?”

“Yes.”

“John Henry and Cameron, they’re inside Skynet, aren’t they?”

“A valid conclusion.”

“Why are you here?”

“My main processors have had no ability to access the records from the periods of time that were missed. I am a record.”

“Why Savannah?”

“Kinetic energy is required for functionality.”

“It didn’t have to be her,” he points out. “You could have jumped to anyone.”

The machine is silent.

“Where is my mother?”

“Her last communication originated from one-one-S-L-B-seven-six-four-three-five-three-seven-zero-nine-one.”

John closes his eyes and drops his hands; a few moments later he feels the machine begin to slither back to Savannah.

“Wait.” He brings it back sharply. “Weaver told me to get Savannah out of here. It wants you, but I’m not leaving her behind. You’re going to help.”

“Yes,” crackles the voice.

“How much mobility do you have?”

In his palm, the silver pool begins to form shape after shape. None of them are complex, but they’ll work.

”How thin can you become? How much can you stretch yourself?”

The machine flexes and begins to spool itself into wire. He tests the strength; it’s more unyielding than steel. Carbon nanotube at its finest.

“Good.” He holds it out towards Savannah; the machine flows back up her skin and settles back into the shape of a barcode, keeping her an eternal child.

Savannah falls asleep quickly; he watches her and refuses to look away. Hers is the only face he wants to remember from this place.

Except.

Except it’s easy to be cold when Kyle’s angry; it’s easy to shut down against that, he’s had practice one way or another. It’s harder when there’s nothing but muffled sobs and harsh breathing to keep him company.

“Still alive, Connor?”

John smirks, like brother, like brother. “Still alive.”

“What did it want?”

John can’t find a reply and Kyle doesn’t ask again.

In the morning John counts sixteen slumped shapes against the wall and then turns away when Kyle and Neil approach.

Kyle scowls at the human remains. “I don’t get why they even let us out, feed us. Why not leave us to rot?”

“We clear the bodies,” answers Savannah, as if it’s self-evident. “There used to be hundreds, every day.”

“They could do it. Why not just wipe us out? It isn’t logical.”

John doesn’t know why the machines didn’t do it before, but he’s got a pretty good idea now. Two voices, whispering in their electronic ear. That and he’s beginning to suspect the machine is watching what they do, how they act. If the early infiltration units’ behavioral patterns were based on the observations made of the camps, John isn’t surprised they were hollow cutouts.

“It doesn’t matter.” He darts a look at Kyle. “We’re leveling it.”

Neil looks in confusion from John’s face to Kyle’s. “I thought the plan was to get the girl out.”

John watches the expressions flicker across Kyle’s face –suspicion, fear and a fierce, almost feral happiness. Compared to Derek, Kyle is an easy read. “It is,” he answers at last, “but we can give everyone else a chance.”

Not much of a chance. Not enough of a chance. And he’s not convinced Weaver’s solution isn’t the best one, that they aren’t safer in here. Except for the nebulous, half-formed feeling that inside the wire they may live, but out there, even if it’s only for a few minutes, at least they’ll be alive.

Kyle grins almost proudly; John flushes awkwardly at his approval and has no idea why.

Neil crosses his arms around his mid-section and hangs his head. “So what’s the plan?”

Kyle snorts before John can answer and claps the man almost sympathetically on the shoulder; Neil hunches. “Like he’s going to tell you.” He looks back to John and asks, “What do you need us to do?”

John still has no idea what he’s done to earn Kyle’s loyalty, but he’s not going to question it. That’s later, if he can figure out what the words need to be.

For now he says, “The pens will open, when they do you need to get everyone who can walk over to the far right corner. It’s a false floor and there’s no cages there, so I’m betting it’s not load bearing. Use some of the debris to take up the panels. There’ll be two escalators going down into a garage, at the back of the garage is the way out.”

“They’ll be on us-“

”No. They won’t.” John tries a reassuring smile and Neil takes a step back.

“How do you even know that?” he whispers.

John drops the smile. “Does it matter?”

Neil’s fists bunch and he takes a step forward, and then another, until he’s in John’s face and white with fear and anger. “It matters if you’re working for them. If this is just some sick game to-“

Anger roars into him, it rushes through the empty places fear and regret have left and no one’s there to pull John back from it this time - Riley is dead, Cameron is gone and Kyle understands. Neil’s head snaps back as John’s fist cracks his jaw. He’s barely on the ground before John’s boot is buried in his ribs; John feels something give and he knows there are so many more bones to break.

Now there are hands pulling him back and he fights against them until he registers how small they are. Savannah gives one last haul and pushes him away; the fury vanishes and leaves him cold and breathless.

He pants and watches Neil shake; he’s going to be sick.

When he can speak he looks to Kyle, who hasn’t moved. There’s no expression for John to read this time. “There should be a way out, if there isn’t you’ll need to dig. You may have some help,” he says evenly, as if he hasn’t just broken a man up.

Kyle’s gaze flickers down, he watches Savannah as she gently touches the man on the ground and then looks back. “Where will you be?”

“Right behind you.” His knuckles are torn; he licks the blood away – antiseptic is where you find it - and then turns to look at the door.

It’s beginning to open; there isn’t much time.

He crouches next to Savannah and whispers, “I need to take the- your - it.”

What is it to her, anyway?

Savannah gives a half smile; it’s wry and tired, and it knows. “The machine.” She takes his hand; he feels the metal crawl onto his skin and this time he doesn’t flinch.

He walks towards the hatch when it begins to open, murmuring instructions and hoping he’s heard. When the T-800 grips his shoulder again, it’s harder.

“You attacked another. Explain.”

“He accused me of working for you,” John says steadily. “I was angry.”

“Was the lie a threat to you?”

“No. But some lies are threats, some lies protect. Why am I here?” Not that he’s complaining - it’s easier than trying to talk his way in. Now he just has to keep the machine playing.

“You will give answers.”

He rubs the space on his wrist where the tiny part of Weaver had been and asks, “Why will I do that?”

The voice has no reply and John looks around. The long row of 800s is still powered down; he tries to calculate how long it will take Weaver to interface with their code. If it even can. It’s more advanced, but it could still be detected, overcome.

His heartbeat tells him it should have been quicker than this.

“Because you want to know the questions,” calculates the machine at last.

John smiles; awareness has become understanding. “Yeah, I do,” he admits.

He won’t know what they are today, though.

As one the termination units straighten, he’s expecting it – praying for it – but he still starts and feels adrenaline pressing him to run. Red eyes blaze and then fade and then the machines walk with perfect synchronicity towards the hatchway.

John doesn’t wait to see them go. Their single task now is to open the cages, rip up the flooring and protect whoever can make it out. If they can even manage one out of three, he’ll call it a win.

He runs to the bank of lights of the mainframe, stumbling over the fallen masonry and climbing through the cage that protects it.

Its voice has become a repeating, high-pitched whine; it’s not dead but it’s hurting. It’s crying. And it has to be smothered.

There’s no human interface, but there are thick cables running deep down into the ground. His hands are slick with sweat and he can’t get a grip to pull them from the mainframe.

“Machine. Weaver. Help me.”

A silver pool detaches itself from a port above his head and slithers down to his hand. Within seconds he’s holding a long, thin blade. He can only hope it’s non-conductive.

It saws through the cables with barely any resistance and he jumps back from the flurry of sparks. “Okay.” He swallows and nods. “Okay,” he says again. The fire from the cables spreads quickly across the floor, carried by oil and petrol. He races the flames towards the door way and he thinks he’s going to make it until an explosion picks him up like a rag doll and throws him head first against the wall next to the door.

The world turns into bright lights and sickening darkness and as long as he lives he’ll never know how he reels to his feet and falls into the courtyard, but he’ll always remember the scorching heat blistering his back.

He rolls to a stop at the metal feet of an 800 and stares up at it in dazed confusion before horror sharpens his focus.

Weaver’s re-programming didn’t hold. It didn’t hold and everyone’s dead.

John scrabbles up and throws himself back and away, but he can’t seem to coordinate himself enough to stand - let alone run - and it stalks him down until he’s on his back against the wall.

Down,” yells Kyle and that’s all the warning John gets to go fetal before one of the diggers slams into the machine and sends it reeling away.

Hands are on him and he struggles until he comprehends they’re warm and human. He opens his eyes and sees three of Kyle before his vision blurs into a stinging red.

He just about makes out Kyle swearing before the world lurches on its axis and now what little he can see of it is upside down and moving, until it isn’t there at all.

When John cracks open his eyes again, it’s to the familiar sight of the med-station ceiling and, seriously, he could have gone without seeing it again for a couple lifetimes.

There’s a dull ache in his head that snatches of memory tell him was much worse, the ache fades as he tries to piece together the fragments before it all went black.

“Kyle?” He croaks.

“He’s alive.” At John’s left, Derek’s voice is flat and even half awake and concussed he can hear that’s not a privilege everyone – John, for instance – is necessarily going to enjoy.

He shuts his eyes and aims to sound as pathetic as possible; it’s not hard and it worked last time. “The others?”

“Down below. Most of them made it out; we picked them up a mile from the camp. Lost most of your machines to the HKs, but there’s one out in the barrens just walking around.”

“You came?”

Derek says nothing, and that says enough.

John opens his eyes again and rolls his head slowly, trying to keep the growing nausea at bay. Something tells him he really, really doesn’t want to throw up. “Savannah?”

Derek’s expression flickers. “No. The metal that got you got her first. Kyle said -- he said she never even saw it coming.”

He says it like it’s a comfort and John guesses it is. It really is.

John looks back up to the ceiling and runs his hand down his arm to his wrist; there’s a thick band there and it shifts under his touch.

Derek stands and looks at some middle point between John and the floor. “Was it worth it?”

John stares at the light swaying above him until his eyes water. “It will be.”

Chapter Text

This stretch of the Sonoran is a killer, Viejo tells Sarah. It killed one of his children, three of his grandchildren. It killed his brother.

When she doesn’t reply, he spits on the dust-washed tiles of the cantina floor and says, “It slaughters. Like a butcher.”

Sarah glances at the table where Jesse and Savannah wait and watch, and then smiles in the face of his disapproval. “Sounds familiar.” She holds his gaze and lets him see exactly how serious she is as she pushes the money towards him again. “Cuando toca, toca.

The old man narrows his eyes and jerks his head over to their watchers. “Is it their time too?”

“It’s everyone’s time,” she replies coolly. “Do you have what we need? I came to you because Felix said you were good. If that’s changed tell me now, I’ll find someone else.“

Money wins; in Sarah’s experience, money usually does. Viejo flicks a practiced thumb through the bills and then tucks them into the threadbare canvas bag at his elbow. “Nothing has changed, but you’re a fool. There are easier crossings.”

“Easier to get caught, too. I can’t risk that.”

The old man studies her; she wonders if he sees determination, or if he sees fear.  “No,” he says at last, “Maybe you can’t. You will have someone to catch you? For a small fee, I can-”

“It’s arranged.” She hopes it’s arranged, anyway. Their survival resting on hope isn’t what she wants, but it’s not like she can trust.

Viejo pushes a folded piece of printer’s paper across the table. “Routes. Times. Follow carefully, keep quiet and move quickly, and the patrols won’t find you.” He grins and gold glints. “Anyone else, I cannot say. But if I am asked, I will tell them you decided to try a safer crossing.”

That’s more than Sarah expected from him; she smiles her thanks warily and doesn’t understand why the old man – with at least one gun in that bag, and with hands inked in prayer on his skin - suddenly seems to relax.

She asks, “You going to wish me luck?”

“If I did,” he says dryly, “you’d tell me you didn’t need it.”

She ducks her head to concede the well-aimed point. He’s right - she wouldn’t actually believe it, but she’d say it.

“But I’ll wish you success.” He grins crookedly, “Mal paso, darle prisa.”

Sarah waits until he’s gone before she allows her smile to fade away.

To bad steps … make them quick.

Jesse weaves through the midday bar crowd, towing Savannah behind her with one hand. Her other hand brushes the hem of her shirt, never more than a few inches from the 9mm at her back.

Sarah lifts the kid onto her lap while Jesse takes the only other chair.

“Get it?” Jesse asks, and picks up the mostly empty bottle Viejo left. She sniffs it and then drinks the rest of the beer down.

Sarah scans the paper and passes it over. “Patrol routes and times, radio frequencies. We’ll go this afternoon.”

Jesse pushes the bottle to the side and leans back in her chair with the studied slouch of a teenager pushing their luck. The teenager Sarah knows, anyway. By her count, Jesse’s promise of good behavior is going to have a lifespan of two weeks – even Derek had lasted longer than that. A smile would be a mistake; she thinks of Riley and the amusement fades away.

“Splitting up’s stupid. You and the kid alone, metal’s never had it so easy. You’ll both die.” Jesse sounds concerned, but in the undercurrents of that concern something sharper is stirring, and that’s not something Sarah can afford to let surface.

She stares into Jesse’s eyes until the woman blinks and then she speaks flatly, “If I say we’re splitting up, we’re splitting up.”

Jesse’s lip curls into a sneer. “Your way or an unmarked grave next to the highway. I know, okay? But-“

“The second I don’t think I can trust you, I won’t kill you,” Sarah interrupts in the same level tone. “I’ll cripple you and leave you out there, alone, waiting for the machines.”

Jesse doesn’t move, Sarah smiles intently and prompts, “Say you understand.”

“I understand,” Jesse whispers at last, and the sharpness sinks without a trace.

Sarah leans forward, not letting Jesse look away. “Do you believe me?” She watches Jesse’s gaze as it flickers over her expression and doesn’t have to wonder what the woman sees there.

Jesse nods slowly, with an almost bemused frown. “I believe you.”

Sarah hopes she does, because Jesse was right: they need her. That, and Sarah doesn’t want to kill her – she doesn’t want to kill anyone. Every life she doesn’t take is a fight against the machines she wins, but Jesse needs to know there are fights that Sarah is willing to lose.

She lets her eyes stray to the scar on Jesse’s forehead and the tension stretches another second before Sarah sits back abruptly and says, ”You’re coming with us.”

Jesse recoils almost imperceptibly and then her mouth curves with bitter admiration. She manages to keep most of the sarcasm out of her voice when she asks, “Do I get to know who has the pick up?”

Sarah nods, she can afford to give a little now. Call it positive reinforcement. “Ellison.”

Jesse doesn’t respond, but Sarah doesn’t miss the flash of concern and she has a pretty good idea what the next question would be. “I FedEx’d him when we got into town. Unless Skynet is opening our mail now, we just have to worry about the machine following us.”

She looks down at Savannah. The kid’s plucking at the stringy yellow hair of an almost shapeless rag doll and murmuring too quietly to hear.

On the journey to Nogales, she went from quiet to a withdrawn silence that not even Jesse’s weirdly affectionate threats could bring her out of.  Sarah feels a prick of unease, but there’s nothing they can do right now; she looks back to Jesse. “Oranges, energy bars, jerky. Sun block.”

“If we’re still out there when the sun comes up, we’ll have more to worry about than sun block,” Jesse points out, carefully.

“Savannah won’t.” Sarah brushes a hand over long red hair. They’ll have to dye it soon, but not yet. “Just get it. And as much water as we can carry without getting slowed down.”

Jesse says, “We’ll be carrying her too.”

Sarah shakes her head, but Savannah says, “I’ll walk.”

-o-

Savannah walks.

She’s a blurred shape, padded against the cold and stumbling over the scrub. She whimpers sometimes, but she doesn’t cry and she doesn’t ask to stop. Sarah is fiercely proud of her.

In front – on point - Jesse paces solidly, one foot in front of the other like she could walk the desert forever. The food bag is slung across her back and the 12-gauge is in her hands.

Sarah pulls the straps of her bag tighter over her shoulders. The water is heavy, but she carries it gladly. She remembers when she had none.

Behind them, Hijo pads almost silently.

They walked for two hours before the sun set, and they’ve walked two more since. They barely have to cover four miles; even keeping to Savannah’s pace, if the ground were even they would be there by now.

Instead, packed sand pretending to be earth shifts under their feet, dragging their footsteps back and making it harder to take that next step forward. Patches of smokethorn and cholla cactus force them to weave back and forth over rocky ground and the rise and fall of the land only makes it worse.

Their breath frosts as the air grows colder; it glints in the moonlight before melting away.

The only weapons they have are the shotgun, a couple of 9mms and some grenades. The rest they abandoned. Ellison will have more – he better have more - but there are hours to go before they reach him and somewhere behind them the machine is hunting.

Every snap of a twig makes her heart beat faster and that’s more tiring than the march could ever be. Sometimes she sees shapes darting at the very edge of her vision - coyotes and bobcats, silently haunting the intruders as their territory is crossed. When a howl goes up far behind them she flinches, but Hijo only swings her head once and then ignores it.

Twenty minutes later Jesse stops, holds up a hand and crouches in one smooth movement. Savannah laboriously lays herself flat behind the cover of Hijo and Sarah feels her knees creak as she turns and crouches, swinging her gun in an arc to cover where Jesse can’t.

She listens.

Somewhere, miles to the northeast, traffic on the interstate hums. At Jesse’s waist the radio crackles – the few exchanges between the Patrols have all indicated they’re following the routes on the paper.

It takes a few seconds before she hears the growl of another engine, one much closer than it should be. On the horizon, appearing and disappearing with the dips in the ground, she sees headlights approaching

She swears under her breath and beckons Savannah to her; the girl scrabbles closer. Up close her eyes are wide, but without the sheen of instinctive fear Sarah’s come to expect. The kid’s scared, but she isn’t terrified.

Sarah makes her tone softly reassuring anyway. “Hide in the scrub with Hijo, okay? No matter what, you don’t come out unless-“

“I remember,” says Savannah, more or less audible under the muffling.

“Go.” Sarah gives her a gentle push and the girl runs, bent almost double as she tries to stay low, just like she’s been taught.

Sarah waits just long enough to see her disappear from view and then joins Jesse in the closest dip in the ground. And a dip is all it is - they’re not lucky enough for a ditch. They may be just lucky enough for the jeep not to run right over it; maybe they’ll even lucky enough for the headlights to miss them.

“Ellison?” Jesse struggles out of her shirt and then wraps it quickly around the barrel of the shotgun.

Sarah re-checks her own equipment as she replies; nothing can be allowed to shine. “No, I didn’t tell him the route. If he had to come looking, he’d call. Nothing on the radio?”

“Nothing,” Jesse confirms. “They were talking about some guy’s ex-wife. Turns out, she’s a bitch. Coyotes? Runners?”

“Maybe,” Sarah breathes and tries to flatten herself even further. The jeep is coming from the North; it’s not the machine unless it’s circled around. Which is possible.

Jesse carefully lowers herself down. “Two in the front, one in the back.”

“Good,” Sarah says and lets some of the morbid amusement into her tone.

After a second Jesse snorts and then they both laugh, because it’s funny. Three means it’s probably not machines. Whoever these people are, chances are good they’re only human, and human is nothing at all.

The jeep slows, and then stops, and it’s not funny anymore.

The headlights stay on, washing the ground in light but hiding the passengers as they open the doors. There’s no conversation Sarah can hear, but she can just make out the shape of a man as he holds his hand up and then gestures sharply to the left.

Hand signals aren’t good news and from Jesse’s hiss, she agrees.

Two figures fade into the darkness behind the jeep and Jesse turns on her back and tries to pick out movement coming in behind them. Sarah watches as the third figure walks deliberately to the open ground between the dip and the scrub hiding Savannah.

“Sarah Connor.”

Sarah says nothing as the figure turns a slow circle. Her eyes are adjusting enough that she can pick out his clothing; it’s some kind of uniform, but not the Border Patrol and she doesn’t think it’s military either.

“Sarah Connor,” he says again. Then, “We want Savannah Weaver, you will be allowed to leave.”

His accent isn’t quite right and the words are stilted, as if he’s reading words he doesn’t understand. But she knows he can’t be a machine, Hijo would have been barking long before now.

Thirty feet away Hijo growls, behind Sarah the shotgun is deafening as Jesse fires.

Sarah kicks two bullets into the ground at the man’s feet and then pulls herself up and runs towards him. She’s barely been moving a second when she knows it hasn’t worked: he doesn’t jump, he doesn’t flinch away - he turns to meet her rush.

At the last moment she goes into a slide, aiming for his ankles and hoping like hell he’ll flinch at that.

The shotgun blasts again as she slams into him and he stumbles back and then falls. She lets herself ride the wave of relief and uses it to roll to her feet. The man twists to meet her as she kicks at his head and she feels bone crunch under her boot. He coughs out and blood flashes bright and black for a moment before it’s just one more shadow pooling on the ground. Another kick and he falls back to sprawl bonelessly in the dust. She takes the gun from his hand and leaves him there.

Hijo’s not barking anymore, she’s making the kind of ripping, tearing sounds that Sarah only hears when the dog is hunting. Somewhere in the scrub a man screams and screams again, until the only thing left in him is a choking whimper and then not even that. She allows herself one moment of savage elation before she whistles for the dog to hold, not kill.

“Up on your six,” says Jesse laconically from behind her. Sarah twitches, but she manages not to turn and swing. She takes a breath and lets it shudder through her chest as she fights the adrenaline down.


She takes one more deep breath and then jogs over to the scrub, where she finds Savannah curled into a tight ball. Sarah murmurs the words that will let her pick the girl up and pull her close. She tries to shield her eyes from the scene; even in the sharp relief of headlights and shadow, Hijo’s muzzle is dark and slick, and the form on the ground is nowhere near right.

Sarah should have whistled the dog to hold earlier; then when she sees the rifle, she thinks maybe she shouldn’t.

With Savannah in her arms, she turns back to see Jesse pulling another figure into the arc of the headlights. When a hand jerks spasmodically she thinks he’s alive, and then she sees the shape of his head. Heads shouldn’t be that shape.

Jesse looks speculatively at the jeep. “Guess we got a ride.”

Sarah nods over to the scrub, “Drag him in there with the other one.”

She lets Savannah slip out of her arms once they reach the dip. “Stay in here, okay?”

The parka hood nods. “’kay.”

“You hungry?”

The hood shakes.

“Thirsty?”

The hood shakes again.

Sarah glances back at the man in the headlights; he’s still out, she has time. “I’m thirsty.” She pulls her water bottle out from its straps on the bag, pops the lid and drinks. It tastes too warm and too plastic, but it’s still water.

Savannah’s eyes watch and Sarah can see thoughts turning over; she doesn’t rush them.

Finally Savannah reaches out and Sarah gives her the bottle. Savannah drinks carefully, no more than Sarah did, and hands it back.


”You going to be okay waiting here?”

The hood nods.

It’s probably as good as Sarah’s going to get. She walks back to the man, crouches just out of his reach and then splashes some water into his face. He groans and she does it again. This time his eyes flicker open.

“Sarah Connor,” he mumbles indistinctly, and spits blood and saliva onto the ground. His jaw works and he struggles to sit up.

She lets him. “Who do you work for?”

He twists his head as Jesse steps out of the darkness; his shoulders fall and Sarah smiles.

“You can tell me, or you can tell her. Better if you tell me.”

There’s a soft, sharp sound as Jesse draws a knife from its sheath at the small of her back.

Bad cop, worse cop. Christ.

“Why do they want the kid?”

“I don’t know.” The man doesn’t look scared, if anything he looks resigned.

“What’s your name?”

He shakes his head and Jesse says. “You look like a Robert. Can I call you Bob?”

‘Bob’ watches her warily as she circles him; he cranes his head to keep her in his sight until tracking Jesse’s path leads him back to Sarah. He shudders and stares like a rabbit out on the highway. Like he knows he’s road kill.

She says, “We want you alive – you can take a message back for us.”

For the first time there’s a hint of hope in his eyes and she smiles again. “But you need to talk first, Bob. And you need to talk quickly, because soon the swelling will get so bad you won’t be able to.” She leans closer and whispers,  “Even when you really, really want to.”

Bob blinks and looks away. “What do you want to know?”

“Tell me who you are and who you’re working for, that’s it.”

He swallows thickly, spits again and then mumbles, “My name is Elias. We—we were told to extract the girl. That is all.” He looks at the trail of gore Jesse’s kill left as it was dragged away, reds and grays glistening in the high beams, and swallows convulsively. Sarah guesses she wouldn’t like to throw up with a cracked jaw either.

Jesse nudges him with her foot to get his attention. “How did you know where we were?”

“I can’t. I -” His eyes dart around now, as if he’s expecting instant retribution from something even worse than a woman who let her dog eat someone alive. Something crawls up Sarah’s spine and she resists the urge to turn as Jesse shifts her stance warily. “We have a locator, it’s in the jeep,” he says in a rush.

“I see. I have one more question, Bob. Sorry,” she smiles her apology and for the first time, the man gives a tentative smile back, “I have one more question, Elias.”

His eyes rise to meet hers; he’s not like the last company man she met. No madness riding just under the skin. She doubts he’s older than she is, and blonde hair and a round face make him seem younger than that. Cheap suits who barely put up a fight and probably weren’t told to expect one. Easy to kill, easy to leave in the desert, with a jeep they wouldn’t need anymore.

“How stupid do you people think I am?”

His smile fades and in the instant between shock and fear, she sees the anger. He says something in a language she doesn’t understand and then kicks out fast at her ribs. She twists enough to take it on her hip but the impact takes her down hard and she can’t find a way to brace as he throws himself after her.

He drops heavily to his knees so close that she can see his pupils contract and hear his breath stutter. He sways and Sarah looks beyond him as Jesse wrenches her knife out of his back and then lets the body crumple to the side.

Sarah climbs to her feet and ignores the closed off expression Jesse’s wearing; if she’s hiding satisfaction, Sarah really doesn’t want to know. She mutters her thanks and then leans down pull out Elias’ pockets.

Nothing; she wasn’t really expecting there would be. There’s a flesh-colored bug in his ear, but when she holds it against her own there’s nothing but static. It’s tempting to take it but she won’t, for the same reason she’s leaving everything else.

She looks back up to see Jesse staring almost abstractly down at the body. “This was too easy,” Jesse says at last.

“Too easy.” Sarah confirms. “If these guys were sent by the same people who tried for me a few months ago, they know better than to try something like this. None of them even got a shot off.”

Jesse turns to look at the jeep thoughtfully. “You think they wanted us to take it?”

“Uh huh. So it stays here.”

“We could look, see if there’s a locator. They found us somehow,” Jesse says, and takes a step forward.

“Leave it,” Sarah snaps.

“I-“ Jesse growls her frustration and stops. “Fine.” At least she doesn’t call Sarah paranoid; maybe in the future there’s no such word.

They drag Elias into the scrub. The night makes it easier; it turns blood to black water, bodies to things. The desert will finish what Hijo started.

Sarah washes the blood from her hands as well as she can, but when she goes to pick Savannah up the girl squirms until Sarah is forced to drop her. “I can walk.”

“I know,” Sarah says and glances at Jesse.

Jesse shrugs. “Still no traffic on the radio, they didn’t hear anything.”

Sarah looks into Savannah’s stubborn expression and smiles. “I’ll make you a deal. We’re going to be walking faster now. As long as you can keep up, you can walk. But when you can’t, you tell one of us, okay?”

Savannah nods.

Sarah bites the inside of her cheek and then says awkwardly, “Has your Mom said anything?”

The times she’s tried contact while Savannah has slept, the machine has stayed silent and inert. She doesn’t like it. Doesn’t trust it. She’s halfway sure that’s how they’re being tracked, but if it is there’s nothing she can do about it. For now.

Savannah touches her coat where it covers the bracelet, as if assuring herself it’s still there. “Mommy’s too busy to talk to me. She has to work. It’s very important.”

That sounds like nothing good. Sarah musters another smile and pats the kid’s arm, “You listen out for her, okay?”

Savannah starts walking; Jesse watches her go past and then grins sharply at Sarah before she jogs to the girl’s side. “If you want to take point, you got to learn how to do it.”

Sarah whistles for Hijo and then follows after them.

-o-

It’s dawn by the time they reach the access road, dusty and dirty and wired on fear and exhaustion.

From the thin cover of trees Sarah can see an old blue minivan there, parked up next to a shack. Inside it she can see the outline of a driver and whoever they are, they’re moving. She puts a hand on Savannah’s shoulder and then nods to Jesse. “Ask him for the date. If the answer isn’t zero four twenty-one eleven, tell him you’re coming to get us and walk away.” She smiles humorlessly. “Then, run.”

Jesse drops her bag and leaves the shotgun at Sarah’s side. One hand resting under her shirt at the small of her back, she moves further into the copse. A few minutes later Sarah sees her emerge thirty feet up the road.

“Where’s Mister Ellison?” Savannah whispers.

“Jesse’s looking for him,” replies Sarah absently. “And playing bait,” she doesn’t add. There are still parts of Savannah’s education that can wait.

Jesse walks slowly to the van, stopping when the door clicks open and the driver gets out.

It looks like Ellison, but that doesn’t mean anything at all. Jesse’s mouth moves; Sarah can’t hear what she says, but she can see Ellison respond. Jesse says something else and her stance shifts closer to flight before Ellison speaks again.

When Jesse nods towards their position and Sarah relaxes. It’s harder to force herself out of cover than she expects, so she does it quickly and with her chin raised. When she isn’t immediately shot, she reaches back for Savannah’s hand. They walk slowly together and Sarah can’t shake the feeling that they’re being tracked; can’t stop remembering the last time she and Ellison met or the jail cell she slept in.

Savannah’s hand tugs away ands she runs the last few feet to Ellison’s side. Ellison lifts her with an easy smile and murmurs something that makes her giggle softly.

When he looks back to Sarah his smile hardens warily at the edges, but it doesn’t disappear. “So I guess it’s good to see you.”

Sarah pulls her attention back, away from Savannah and a pang of jealousy she wasn’t expecting. “Really?”

The corner of his mouth lifts. “No, not really.”

She smirks. “You too.”

Chapter Text

John’s world has been his workshop for the last two weeks, and there’s another guard at the door. It’s a man this time, John hasn’t asked his name. Disobey Perry’s orders, steal Derek Reese’s kid brother to go on what’s likely to be a suicide run, and there are going to be consequences.

He had kind of hoped getting back alive might count for something, but Derek seems to think that’s debatable. John’s not sure if Derek’s angry because John took Kyle, or angry John didn’t take him too. He’s not sure Derek knows either and honestly, he doubts it would make a difference.

The last he’d seen of Kyle was when Derek had arrived in the med station to ‘escort’ John back to his workroom, and Kyle had still been unconscious. It turned out ‘alive’ had meant ‘shot twice carrying John Connor’s concussed ass out of Century.’

He’d seen Allison just before she left for tunnel patrol, a flash of a smile and a sympathetic expression and then she was gone. He hated she was out there, somewhere he couldn’t see. Hated there was nothing he could do about it.

Derek had told him the west tunnels were the safest place next to Below – safer than the fake HQ it had been her turn to play live bait in. John had told him to go to hell and it had gone downhill from about there.  They hadn’t talked since.

John had seen Neil once, when he’d told his guard he was going down Below to check the Techs still had everything under control and then started walking before anyone could say no. Neil had apologized; John had said he was sorry too, but he wasn’t sure why. His knuckles still sting a little.

Just like before, they keep him occupied with piles of busted up electronics and they bring him his food morning and evening. There’s a cot in the corner of the room, behind some boxes, and he’s escorted to the washrooms three times a day. Sometimes there’s even water.

Otherwise, it’s kind of a pity the apocalypse means no birds, he thinks, because The Birdman of the Apocalypse is where he’s headed.

In between scattered bouts of morbid amusement he’s restless and angry, and frustrated. For the first time, maybe the first time ever, he knows exactly what he has to do, and he wound up in a future where no one’s taking his orders. Connor luck.

Plastic shatters under his fingers and a chip spins over his shoulder; he really doesn’t care. He doubts there was much he could have done with the innards of a Tamagotchi pet anyway. Figures one of those would survive the end of the world. 

He makes his way out from behind the workbench and over to the partially covered exoskeleton by the wall.

Most of the shine is gone; it’s covered in dust and the dried remains of the red-brown gunk that passed for blood. It’s weird, maybe really weird, but he can still see Cameron there, somehow. No skin, no chip and no power supply - just a metallic skeleton and twisted wires - but it’s her just the same.

Allison was right: he’s sick.

He laughs to himself, at himself, and wanders back towards the bench, only to swing aside and begin pacing the small area of floor that isn’t covered with junk.

There are things to do, places to be, and a growing sense of urgency that gnaws at him. It’s a hundred times worse than when he was a kid and he knew in some abstract sense that the end was coming, because there’s nothing abstract about this at all.

He needs to think of a way out, any way out, but his plans scatter in front of him. He can’t focus.

The door opens; he guesses it’s dinnertime and doesn’t bother to look around. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome,” says Kyle.

John turns as Kyle rounds the six foot pile of servers. “Kate let you out?”

Kyle shrugs easily and drops a couple of cans in John’s hands. “Eh, more or less.”

“Kate turned her back for two seconds and you snuck out,” John translates. “Great. Derek’ll probably blame me for that too.” He puts the cans on the desk; any excitement he ever had at the thought of mystery food is long since gone.

Kyle waves a hand with the careless assurance of someone Derek isn’t looking for an excuse to kill. “Don’t worry about it.”

“You’re not the one who’s been grounded. I’m under freaking bunker arrest, Kyle. I’ve spent the last two weeks breaking down toys that don’t work so someone else can make filtration units that don’t work. Somewhere out there, the machine are winning – completely and forever - and I’m in here, having to ask the guy at the door if I can go to the bathroom.”

John stops himself before it gets any more embarrassing, but he can’t help punctuating his rant with a thrown scrap of metal casing. It bounces off the wall and rolls under a pile of what used to be TomToms.

Kyle stares at him and then nods slowly. “So you’re not happy. I’ll bust you out. You got us out of Century, I can return the favor.”

John forces himself to bring it down a notch. “You got us out of Century.” He manages a smile; it feels small and uncertain. “Thanks, by the way. The whole getting shot thing.”

“I guess we’re even.” Kyle leans back against the wall and crosses his arms. “So where next? What’s the plan?”

“I don’t have a plan, I have Cliff Notes.” John sees the confusion and shakes his head. “Never mind. I need to give Savannah’s bracelet to Catherine, that’s it.”

Kyle cants his head. “Catherine? She gave you the picture, right?” He unconsciously touches the front pocket of his vest. “Back in the barrens? Savannah was her … daughter?”

“Sister,” John lies easily. “She’ll want to know what happened.”

“How do you know where she’ll be?”

“She won’t be far away, Savannah was her life.” John smiles grimly and Kyle looks even more confused.

The confusion gives way to a strange determination; it’s the only warning John gets as the friendly demeanor drops and the colder, harder man his mother knew surfaces.

“You know you’re not fooling as many people as you think you are with the cryptic comments, right? Allison thinks you’re just having a hard time getting past something. Derek can’t decide if you’re more dangerous to yourself or others.”

John looks away. “There’s things I can’t talk about. I’m not trying to be cryptic, I guess I’m just … I don’t know.”

“I talked to Kate,” Kyle says like John hasn’t said a word. “Don’t worry, she didn’t tell me anything, really. But she thinks you just want someone to ask the right question. So I got a question for you.”

Kyle falls silent and John guesses after a few moments he’s waiting for John to give the word.

It’s a bad idea, he knows it absolutely and completely and he still rolls his eyes like he’s fourteen and says, “Fine. So, ask.”

“Did you really think I wouldn’t recognise you?” Kyle asks in a ruthlessly bland tone that leaves John frozen, staring and open-mouthed in its wake.

Kyle smiles almost ruefully. “I wasn’t sure, for a while. If you’d been older maybe I wouldn’t have caught it, but I remember being sixteen. You’re taller. I bet your mom’s tall, right?”

John nods automatically; actually he grew past his mother at thirteen, but he never really shook looking up.

“I thought maybe you were my grandfather come from the past or something - you look a lot like him. But that’s not right, is it?”

John shakes his head mutely.

Kyle nods and then nods again; he grins like a kid at Christmas. “I asked Derek, you know – ‘are you sure there isn’t another Reese kid out there?’ Like maybe he forgot one. He tried to get me to go see Kate, but his poker face isn’t as good as he thinks it is.

“So then I remembered there was this thing about, you go back in time to kill your own grandfather. Kinda screwed that one up when you saved my life.” Kyle tilts his head back until he’s staring at John. “But the things you know … you’re from the future.”

John stares at the pile of junk beside him, but no answers appear. He directs his reply to it anyway; it’s easier than speaking to Kyle. “Maybe you should go see Kate,” he says flatly. It’s a throw away line and his heart isn’t in it.

Kyle stands away from the wall, not angry, but even in his peripheral vision John can see that it isn’t the posture of someone about to back down. “I deserve to know this, Connor.”

John hisses his amusement under his breath and raises his head, speaking to the wall now. Progress. “Why? You haven’t done anything that bad.”

Kyle says, “Please,” and like that, just like that, John gives in. He’s spent his whole life wanting to give in. “I was born in nineteen eighty-three, I’m not from the future.”

Eighty-three? That’s - but you know all about -”

“I’m not from the future,” he says evenly, and turns just enough to meet Kyle’s eyes. “But my father was.”

Kyle, finally, has nothing to say; John takes a moment to enjoy a bitter kind of victory before he goes on. “The machines sent back an eight-hundred to kill my mom, because in their future I was leading the Resistance. I – we – were winning, they were desperate I guess. He – the other Connor – sent Kyle Reese back, to protect her. It worked. She lived and I was born nine months later.”

Kyle is silent as he works though the implications and then he shakes his head. “If you sent him, me, back, where am I now? The older me.”

“He dies – he died – saving her.”

Kyle swallows.

John goes on relentlessly, because if this is what Kyle wanted it’s what Kyle’s getting. “But it’s out of order, this time. I jumped from two thousand nine to whenever it was that you and Derek found me in the old ZeiraCorp building.

“The machines don’t know who I am and I’m pretty sure they haven’t discovered time bubbles yet. Or they hadn’t - I think maybe that’s what Crystal Peak was hiding. The machines knew there was something too important to nuke in there, that’s the only thing I can think of worth waiting for.”

John stops at last and watches Kyle process. It’s probably too much to ask this will end well, so he pins his hopes on just being stuck with the crazies in the last dark room down Below.

After a couple of minutes, Kyle says, “Okay. Now what?”

That’s unexpected enough that the only answer John can find is the honest one. “We need to take Crystal Peak. They have time tech now, we have to destroy it or take it, or we’re dead. We’re all dead.”

Kyle nods slowly. “And after that? You send me back in time and this happens again?”

John bites his lip until it stings and asks, “Are you going to tell Derek?”

Derailed, Kyle blinks and then shrugs. “Tell me why I shouldn’t.”

Kyle isn’t really questioning, he’s challenging, and John doesn’t need to fight him; Kyle will lose this one all on his own. He shrugs back, and just waits.

“If I told him,” Kyle begins, and then stutters into silence. John can see his mind opening up to the hundreds of possibilities, and the repercussions those possibilities spawn. The hundred ways it could play out that Kyle can anticipate, and the terror filling the place of the million ways that he can’t.

John watches as his expression goes from aggressive, through horror and finally settles on desperately lost. After a few moments, John gives him a sharp smile. “Welcome to my world.”

Kyle is silent for a long time and John lets him be; he picks up a screwdriver and goes back to work. It seems like a long time before Kyle finally says, “The tapes?”

John glances at the pile at the end of the workbench. “From my mother. She’s still back there. She’s stopping Skynet,” he adds dryly.

Kyle laughs under his breath. “Yeah, I guess that didn’t work out so well.”

John grins and barely feels a pang. “No, I guess not.”

“Wouldn’t she be able to tell you what’s in Crystal Peak? What does she say?”

John looks at the pile again. “I haven’t listened to all of them.”

“Why the hell not?” Kyle’s hand reaches for the tapes fast, but John is faster. The screwdriver slams point first into the wooden desk an inch from Kyle’s fingers.

“Don’t.”

Kyle’s hand slowly withdraws, fingers flexing. John risks a look and sees shock, not anger. He repeats as gently as he can,  “Don’t.”

In the silence, he pulls the head of the screwdriver from the wood and deliberately sets it down.

He takes a breath and speaks as calmly as he can, like he hasn’t nearly stabbed anyone at all. “If I listen to them, I’ll act on them. I don’t know they’re still accurate, I don’t even know they haven’t been tampered with. And if they’re clean, maybe I’ll misinterpret or I’ll – I don’t know. I can’t afford to second-guess.”

If he listens to those tapes, he’ll know too little and too much. And he’ll know all the times he never made it home.

Kyle has a talent for finding a target too, and he doesn’t need a screwdriver. “Or maybe you just don’t want to know how it ends. How she ends. You’re risking everything – us - because you can’t deal with it.”

John flinches. “If there was anything really important, it would have been on the first tape. It would have been written on the walls in blood, okay?” He shoves the pile of tapes and they scatter over the bench. “All they are is a really long goodbye.”

“You don’t know that.”

“But I do know where it ended.” He grins and feels his lips stretch over a snarl. “For them. For her. Bishop - it’s near Crystal Peak.” John feels himself slipping into the space where the world is cold and sharp and the path is achingly clear. “You want to know a secret?”

He takes Kyle’s close-lipped silence as an answer and smiles faintly. “Whether I listen to those tapes or not, it doesn’t matter.”

“It has to matter-“

“It doesn’t,” John interrupts. “History, the future - fate finds a way.” He smiles painfully. “I used to wonder how many times we’d done this. How many times John Connor had sent you back. How many times you’d died. Could be a couple times, could be thousands.

“And there must have been a least one John Connor whose father wasn’t Kyle Reese, right? Maybe he was meant to be my father. Maybe it should have been him, later, only she never met the guy because she never got over you.

“Maybe I’m a mistake; that would be a pretty big change, right? But we’re still here, still doing the same thing over and over. I think we never win. Or lose. We go ‘round and around, with me or without me; with these tapes, or without them.”

He’s breathing hard when he’s finished, hands fisted tight and the skin white at his knuckles. Carefully, he unclenches his hands and then says quietly, “My mother says we make our own fate, but we don’t. Fate makes us. It makes us, and it pushes us where it wants us to go, and it does not stop. Ever. It doesn’t stop until it kills us. Maybe not even then.”

Kyle shakes his head like John’s landed a punch, but his voice is strong – and angry. “If you really believe that, why even keep fighting? Why give us light and weapons and hope and then say it doesn’t mean a damn thing?”

John stares up at him and then he brings his hands down so hard on the workbench that the tapes slide to the floor. Kyle jerks back, Johns palms sting but he doesn’t really feel them. “Were you even listening? I have. No. Choice.”

“You can’t believe that,” Kyle whispers. “I don’t believe that.”


”Neither does Derek.” John’s tired. He doesn’t remember ever being so tired. He raises his hands and laces his fingers behind razor-rough hair; hangs his head and murmurs to the ground, “So that’s good. That’s great. One more pawn on the board.”

He can feel the chill of the machine against the skin of his wrist and he tries not to listen to the little voice that says, surely, this has to be new. He can’t afford to hope; he’ll leave that to everyone else.

Kyle coughs. “I guess I’m sorry.”

“What?” John’s head jerks up, surprise overriding the exhaustion.

Kyle flicks his gaze to the side, his turn to look away. “I’m sorry I get killed. I’m sorry I’m not there. It must’ve been - I’m just sorry.”

John laughs, he doesn’t know what else to do with the awkward words and uncomfortable expression. “Kyle, you aren’t my father. The other Kyle was, and he pretty much died for me, so I think we’re even. He probably never even knew about me, I don’t think I would have told him.”

“But you told me,” Kyle says.

“I’m not sending you back.” John hadn’t meant to say that, but it escapes anyway. Maybe it’s just as well.

Kyle stares at him incredulously. “Didn’t you just get through telling me fate has us cold? There was this really dramatic moment with the bench.”

John flushes. “Like I said, there must have been other variations. Maybe we take this turn out. Just keep the machines from sending a Terminator back and let whoever comes next start over. Maybe it needs to start over.”

They’re both silent for a long moment and then Kyle says, “You knew Derek. When you arrived.”

John makes a non-committal sound and Kyle laughs. “Little late for secrets, Connor.”

“It’s never too late for secrets,” John says ruefully. The chill is warming and there’s a lightness there he hadn’t felt since Century. He doesn’t even want to think about exactly how wrong that is.

Kyle looks like he’s not leaving it alone and John rolls his eyes. “Connor sent him back with a cell of Resistance fighters. They were all killed by a Trip 8; it shot him too.” He can still remember Derek just standing there, making sure Vic didn’t start paying attention to other targets. Waiting to die. He can remember the blood under his mother’s hands.

“He dies?” Kyle asks quietly, lost all over again. “He died?”

“Not – no.”

“You mean, not that time.” Kyle’s expression clears of anything much and John nods.

“He was with us when we went to rescue Savannah. None of us were there when – when. But. I think it was quick.” He remembers Derek hadn’t even closed his eyes, and he says more firmly, “It was quick.”

“Good.” Kyle stands straighter. “Look, he’s only got you in here because he knows you’re not telling him something and he thinks you’ll run out into the barrens first chance you get.”

“He’s pretty much right,” John points out. “He can’t keep me here if I want to leave though, right?”

Kyle says nothing and John frowns. “Right?”

“People we don’t trust, they’re left outside if we think they’re no danger. If they know too much … we can’t afford to let them go, and we can’t keep them here.”

That’s a picture drawn in really broad strokes; John cants his head. “So why am I still alive?”

“Because Allison likes you. Kate likes you. You got us supplies. Light. Freaking Math lessons.” A smile flickers. “He’ll figure it out sooner or later, you know that, right?” 

John returns the smile wanly. “Sometimes I wish he would. I kind of miss him.”

“It’s not him though, is it?”

“No.” John shakes his head. “It isn’t.” He stares down at the machine wrapped around his wrist for a moment, then raises his arm and looks to Kyle. “This? Is part of a T-1000. Actually, it’s part of the machine that gave you my mother’s picture. It came through the time bubble with me, looking for a machine it built. Savannah’s been carrying the remains and when she was a kid, Savannah was with my mother.”

He looks at the band thoughtfully. “It’s a record of everything that’s happened between then and now, it’ll tell us more than the tapes can.”

Kyle’s eyes follow the metal band like it was a poisonous snake. “When you decide to spill, you don’t mess around, huh? That thing dangerous?”

“Yes, but it needs us to get it to Weaver. I think in the future Weaver’s from, Connor has the machines fighting each other. Or maybe he had nothing do with it and they evolved enough to turn on each other just like real people.”  He smirks bitterly. “Anyway, Weaver said that Connor owed it. This is the debt. I give Weaver the bracelet and Weaver tells me where the picture came from.”

“Does it matter?” Kyle tears his attention from the band, picks up a can and opens it with a few twists of his knife.

“No. Not any more. But we still need to get into Crystal Peak and Weaver can help us. T-1000s make Trip-8s look like pocket calculators, just this part managed to re-write enough of their local directives to make the machines help us at Century. Weaver could get us the time bubbles.”

Kyle nods, “And then?”

John really doesn’t think they’ll make it that far, but while he’s never actually taken leadership classes he’d guess Leadership 101 would not involve suggesting they’re all going to die screaming. “I told Allison I’d take out the machines,” he says after a pause. “Sound like a plan?”

Kyle hands over the can – peas or something – and nods dubiously. “Sounds like one of your plans.”

John laughs, startling himself and Kyle both. “So what would you do?”

Kyle stops with his knife half into the next can. “What?”

“The fate of the world is in your hands,” John prompts. “What do you do?”

John means it as a joke, but he can see Kyle thinking about it. He scoops out peas with half a cell phone case and waits.

He eats silently for maybe a minute, watching the varied expressions flickering across Kyle’s face with a certain amount of fascination. After a while he takes pity and says, “It doesn’t matter if we don’t even make it past Derek.”

“Derek will help us.”

John snorts. “Some other Derek I haven’t met? Why’s he going to help us?”

“Because Derek still remembers what Kyle looked like at sixteen just as well as Kyle does,” says Derek.

There should be a law, John thinks breathlessly, where he only gets shocked stupid once a day.

“Door’s open,” Derek explains mildly, as he walks around the pile obscuring it. Derek’s hand is on his gun and John thinks wildly that it would be really stupid if he got shot now.

Kyle looks wary, but not worried. “How long?”


”Long enough to know I have a nephew, not a Gray.” Derek stops a few feet from them, looking impassively at John.

Seriously, John hates that look. He goes with what he knows. “We have to go to Crystal Peak.”

“We do,” agrees Derek, with an expression this time, but it’s not one John can parse. If he had to guess though, he’d guess his uncle was amused. He’ll take amused.

There’s a knock somewhere near the door, he keeps staring at Derek as he responds.  “It’s open. Apparently.”

A woman he vaguely recognizes as his first guard – Samantha, maybe – appears around the side of the servers and jerks her head to Derek to bring him closer. John glances at Kyle, who shrugs. John can’t hear much of the muttered conversation, but he gets the gist.

And then Derek is gone, and Kyle is gone, and John is left sitting alone with the words “west tunnels” and “machines”.

-o-

When Derek comes back it’s hours later and John has been staring at Cameron’s exoskeleton for so long he can see the shape of her.

“We lost the west patrol,” Derek says bluntly. “It looks like a raid. No bodies. We’ll go after them when it gets dark.”

John shakes his head. “It’s too late.” But hey, the voice inside whispers, never mind. It’s always been too late.

“When Allison-“ He stops, he doesn’t know it will be Allison this time, that was a stupid assumption. “When one of them comes back,” he amends, “we won’t be here, so you have to tell the patrol to meet whoever it is in the barrens. It can’t be allowed on the base, and they shouldn’t ask it questions. It won’t like questions. Tell them to tell it you left orders to go to Crystal Peak.”

For once Derek doesn’t ask why, but John tells him anyway because there are tears pricking his eyes and Derek has to understand. “Cameron will find us. It’s what she does.”

It’s all she does.

Chapter Text

Sarah’s eight or nine, and she’s skating circles in front of the house when a pale blue Chevy with a cracked plate jumps the curb. She tries to run but roller-skates aren’t made for running, so she falls. She thinks can see every piece of grit in the tire treads.

She’s picked up and thrown away hard enough that the grass she lands on grazes her hands and knees. A voice murmurs words she can’t understand; she tries to say something back, but everything blurs into her mother’s scream and arms holding her so tight she bruises.

Then there’s yelling, and crying, and she tries to tell them about the man, she really does, but no one else saw him. tía Anita whispers about guardian angels, but tía Anita’s been like that since the soldiers and their official regrets knocked on her door again.

Despite Sarah’s tantrum, the skates are taken to Goodwill along with her bicycle. She won’t get to have anything with wheels until she’s old enough to drive. Memory fades into a long, hot summer, but years later when Sarah’s leaving home and the future is big and bright and she’s never worked for tips, she grins and promises her mother that she and Ginger will stay clear of sleazebags and roller-skates.

She expects a laugh, or at least the exasperation her mother wears when she can’t decide between amusement and disapproval. Instead her mom looks away and says, someday Sarah will know how having a child means letting your heart walk around outside your body forever.

Later, Sarah will know her mom was quoting another woman. She’ll also know exactly what she meant.

The machine kills Jeanie Connor nine months before John is born, so Sarah doesn’t get to tell her she understands, or that she’s really sorry about the time she stayed out ‘til four when her curfew was nine.

She’s never really talked to John about his grandmother, or his grandfather. Sarah buried her past, literally and figuratively, and she’s never regretted it; looking back doesn’t keep you alive.

“We lived in Redlands when I was a kid,” she tells the recorder. “Your grandmother’s name was Jean Connor. She preferred Jeanie - she said Jean was her mother. She said she called me Sarah because it was high time for a change. Then she made my middle name Jeanette anyway. You’d have loved her. She’d have loved you. She always-”

Sarah jumps and reflexively ends the recording as the truck door opens.

Jesse hesitates, but at Sarah’s uncomfortable shrug she climbs into the driver seat. When she’s tucked her Glock safely at her side and turned the key in the ignition she nods to the recorder. “What are you telling him?”

“Nothing.“ Sarah slips it into her pocket.

Nothing that will help him, anyway - if she’d managed to leave John anything in these tapes he would be here with them now. Unless he went to a future without time travel, maybe free of the machines. If that happened she’s lost him – time and her own body make that certain - but she tells herself she’s done it gladly.

Jesse drums her fingers lightly on the wheel. “So why still do it?”

Sarah looks towards the motel diner. “How long?”

“Five minutes, maybe. She’s finishing her fruit. Got to have those eight portions,” Jesse finishes with a smirk.

They watch the door for a few moments in silence before Jesse says, “He doesn’t think we should take her with us.”

“I know.” Sarah knows because she and Ellison were fighting half the night. Only half, the other half Sarah spent alone, trying to talk to her son. That didn’t go well either.

She didn’t exactly win the argument with Ellison; she just has facts on her side. If Savannah doesn’t go with them, where does she go? The kid has no relatives in the country that Ellison can find and even if there were any, if it’s Savannah the machine is hunting, it will find her and kill everyone.

Ellison won’t leave the kid with them and Sarah won’t let him take her away. Impasse, they’re stuck with each other. She wonders if this is what ‘married’ feels like.

“I told him it wasn’t his call,” Jesse says off-handedly. “Or mine.”

Sarah shifts around until she’s sitting with her back against the door, facing Jesse. She brings her knee up and relaxes her arm over it. “What do you think? Does she come with us?”

Jesse stares at her for a long moment and then shrugs. “Safest place there is, unless foster homes are better armed than they used to be.”

Silence comes down on them again and Sarah closes her eyes to the sound of Jesse still tapping the wheel. The tapping stops and a few seconds later Jesse says, “I was going to have a kid. Derek’s kid.”

Sarah opens her eyes, “Not-“

“Not here. Before. I lost it.” Jesse turns her head, looks away. “Some days …”

Sarah watches her, and gets it. Who’d choose to have their heart out there in that world? “Some days you’re glad.”

Jesse shrugs a little; Sarah looks back towards the diner as Ellison pushes the door open. As he heads for the car, Savannah skip-walks beside him, chattering about something that makes Ellison laugh and her face light up in a way Sarah’s never seen.

They stop at a pressed penny machine, Savannah points and Ellison begins patting his pockets. They join the queue. A happy kid with someone who cares; how it should be.

Out of the corner of her eye, she can see Jesse watching too. “And some days you aren’t,” she says under her breath.

Jesse huffs, not quite a laugh.

“The machine could have been coming for us,” Sarah says at a normal volume, but doesn’t really believe it.

“Could have been. Wasn’t. It wants what’s on her wrist.”

It makes Sarah wonder what happened to make the machine go after machine; she realizes she can just ask, and does.

Jesse half-smiles and twists her hair back into a messy tail. “John Connor happened. In my future, anyway. He had machines working for him. Like Cameron. No one knows what he did - none of us, anyway. Just one day we hear we got metal on our side and the war’ll be done by Christmas.”

That’s not exactly what Sarah meant, but she realizes she’s interested anyway. Kyle never had time to really explain and she never wanted to ask Derek. “What happened?”

Under Jesse’s fingers, the band snaps harder than it needs to, “Always more machines.”

Sarah tracks back to her original question, “Weaver was working for herself. Itself. John didn’t program that, did he?”

“No, he tried to make a deal. It didn’t go for it. I – we - lost good people on that one.” Off Sarah’s raised eyebrow, she explains, “I took the message. Good little secretary.”

“Maybe he couldn’t re-program a T-1000.”

Jesse lets her hands fall back onto the wheel. “We never had any on our side. 800s. Trips, sometimes. Whatever the hell Cameron was.”

“She - it wasn’t an 800?”

“If it was, Connor did a hell of a re-programming job. It could act human. A guy I knew said he saw it eat once, but he said a lot of shit.” Jesse smirked. “Connor had it living out in a camp for two weeks and no one made it as metal.” Jesse laughs at a memory, but she isn’t amused. “I heard, when Connor brought it on base? People were so freaked out, he told it no more acting human unless he gave specific orders.”

Sarah wants to ask what Derek’s history with Cameron was, but it’s never been about idle curiosity and, anyway, Ellison’s opening the back door.

“Ladies,” he says solemnly, and with a barely detectable trace of irony.

“James,” Jesse greets him sweetly. “Did you miss us?” Sarah has no idea why Jesse has decided to make Ellison her hobby and she’s careful no one sees her smile.

Ellison fixes Savannah’s seatbelt and then his own. He waits until they’re pulling out of the lot to say, “Murch drew money out at an ATM up in San Bernardino about an hour ago.”

Sarah catches his eyes in the rearview and he smiles thinly. “John Henry’s gone, but the ZeiraCorp still has one of the most powerful computer systems in the world. They tell me it makes Roadrunner look like an Acorn, whatever that means. It’s been running facial recognition off ATMs, traffic cameras, street cameras...”

“Across the state?”

Ellison shakes his head, very slightly. Sarah looks away. She thinks of national, practically real-time monitoring of literally millions of feeds, every second, and she can’t think of anything worse. She looks back. “You’ve got to shut it down.”

“We will, but we wouldn’t have Murch without it.”

“I don’t care. Tell them to shut it down, right now.”

Ellison sighs softly. “It’s probably too late for that. John Henry had already been hacked. Murch said whatever it was, it was out of the system. But if that thing could get past John Henry, there’s nothing guarding the hen house now.”

“Then it knows you’re looking.”

“Probably, but I’ve had them run dummy searches too.”

Sarah doesn’t like it. In fact, she hates it. But there’s nothing she can do. “Aldridge still sniffing around?”

“Yeah. He tried to have me followed, actually.” Ellison smiles, the closest thing to a smirk Sarah’s seen on him so far.

Sarah doesn’t insult him by asking if he’s sure he lost the tail. Trust is still fragile between them, but he would never do anything to endanger Savannah. “Anything else?

Ellison’s smile fades. “The search on Danny Dyson still hasn’t turned anything up.”

Sarah’s almost ashamed she didn’t ask. Almost. “How’s Tarissa?”

“I imagine you’d know better than anyone.”

The only thing that stops Sarah from snarling something back is Ellison’s tone, it’s not sympathetic and it’s not ironic, it’s only the truth.

That doesn’t mean she has to answer him.

After a moment, Ellison goes on. “I don’t think she’s let Blythe out of her sight since it happened, but she’s surviving. She asks after you.”

Sarah catches his gaze in the rearview and speaks flatly. “Before or after she’s through cursing my name?”

Ellison smiles faintly, but at least he doesn’t lie to her, “Before and after. Sometimes right in the middle. She knows it’s not your fault, but first her husband, now Daniel -- she needs someone to blame.”

And it might as well be Sarah; it’s the least she can do. It’s about all she can do. “Yeah, she does,” she agrees.

Sarah has blamed everyone from Kyle, to Derek, to Ellison, to the great and future John Connor himself. She doesn’t blame the machines, those she just hates so much she thinks it’s all that keeps her heart beating.

“Have you figured out why someone would take him?” Sarah asks into the silence, as much to keep the conversation on something that won’t have them arguing within a few minutes as anything else.

“Danny is already two grades up; his teachers think he’ll be in College before he’s sixteen. He has an advanced understanding of physics and biochemistry, and an interest in computer science and robotics. The odds aren’t on him being picked up by some predator.”

“His father’s son,” Sarah murmurs. “But why take him now? Why not wait until he’s finished College?”

“Maybe because there won’t be time for him to finish College. Or it could be they want to teach him exactly what they want him to know.” Ellison grimaces. “Lot of maybes. Lot of could-bes."

Sarah looks at Jesse. “The Grays, you knew all their names?”

Jesse hesitates before shaking her head. “I did, maybe not anymore. I found a Gray here that my Derek knew real well, your Derek hadn’t even heard of him.”

Sarah and Jesse have supposedly had the debriefing already, but it seems Jesse’s idea of need to know isn’t quite the same as Sarah’s. This isn’t the time to get into that either, so Sarah just speaks as evenly as she can, “What was the Gray doing here?”

Jesse shrugs minimally. “Bleeding.”

Sarah makes a mental note to come back to that later, when Savannah isn’t listening and Ellison isn’t there at all. “Does the name Daniel Dyson mean anything to you?”

“There was a Dye. Bubble tech. Maybe thirty, hard to tell sometimes.”

That would be about right. Sarah stares out of the window and then looks at Jesse again. “How many Resistance came back here? I mean, how many did John send and how many were … on their own time?”

Jesse smirks faintly and then shrugs. “Maybe twenty, officially. Derek’s group was four, right? Unofficially, hard to say – I knew a guy who knew a guy.”

“What if Kaliba doesn’t have Danny? What if someone took him to protect him? I did it to Martin. We’re looking after Savannah right now.”

Ellison clears his throat and Sarah doesn’t give him a chance to speak, because she knows what he’ll say and she’s not spending any more time going back and forth. She directs a question to Jesse instead, “Did you ever talk to Dye? Did he say anything?”

“No,” Jesse says flatly.

Sarah can’t see enough of Jesse’s expression to tell if she’s lying; apparently Ellison has other methods. “Yeah, he did,” he says almost gently, but Sarah knows exactly what that tone is hiding.

Sarah watches Jesse for a heartbeat and then twists enough she can look at Ellison directly, “Leave it.”

He nods, fractionally.

When she turns back Jesse shoots her a surprised look; Sarah gives her nothing. She hasn’t helped; she just isn’t prepared for Ellison to start baiting a woman with that many weapons when she’s doing eighty down the highway.

-o-

Sarah lets an hour go by and then murmurs, “She asleep?”

“Yeah,” Ellison says just as quietly.

Jesse pulls the truck onto the hard shoulder without a word, turns off the engine and slips out of the door. Sarah clicks her fingers. In the back seat, Hijo opens her eyes and then pulls herself up to guard.

Sarah opens her own door, slides out in the cold and walks to Jesse. They stand looking out onto the highway in silence until Ellison joins them.

Jesse shifts from foot to foot and then tightens her arms defensively around her. ”I didn’t know him, okay? I met him once. Before I came back. He came in when we were about to go through and he was talking to this guy, asking why we were there.”

“You kill him?” Ellison asks in a level tone that Sarah knows well.

“No.” Jesse gives a small, hard smile. “I would have if I had to, but he gave the okay. I figured it was Riley. She was … people did stuff for her. Pretty girl, nice kid, you know?”

“Riley?” asks Ellison, focusing more intently than Sarah would expect.

Sarah shakes her head. “Not the time. So, what, you think he knew who you were?”

“Maybe. I didn’t know him. I remember he looked …” Jesse trails away and then shrugs. “No one looks good, but the bubble techs look worse. Only ever saw one guy who looked worse than him.”

She chews at her lip and glances at Ellision. “Riley asked him how it worked. Like anyone cares, but she was like that, she always had to know. He said it doesn’t work, it just waits.” Jesse glances at Sarah this time and then shrugs uncomfortably. “He said, as soon as the first time machine went from could be to will be, everything happened all at once. Like the rest is just catching up.

“I figured he was just screwing with us. Techs are ... they’re different.”

Sarah turns her back and walks a little away; she has no idea what her expression is, she just knows she can’t afford to let it show. Her voice sounds strange when she speaks, choked and careful and wrong. “Stop looking for him.”

“What?” Ellison sounds distracted, he’s still working through it.

She turns. “Stop looking for Danny. It doesn’t matter anymore.”

Ellison closes his eyes. “My God.”

Jesse’s looks between them, frowning but still not getting it.

“Everything that will happen has happened; we just haven’t got there yet.” Sarah says, “Danny – or whoever it was - let you go because you’d already gone.”

Jesse still looks mystified, “Then what’s the point?”

Sarah stares up at the sky and lets out a breath. “Getting there.”

-o-

They barely speak. Jesse drives until the night falls and then they find a motel south of San Bernardino. 

When the truck pulls up Sarah takes Hijo and goes to check it out, leaving a silent truck behind her.

Ellison watches her disappear inside and then leans forward to rest his arms on the back of the vacant seat. “What didn’t you tell us?”

Jesse keeps her eyes on the motel. “Nothing.”

“Right.” He stretches the miles out of his shoulders and then says, “So where are you? You’re out there somewhere. Australia? New Zealand?”

Jesse hesitates but finally says, “Australia. Merredin.”

“You got family over there?” He doesn’t wait for her nod. “And you don’t want to go and see them? Someone like you, I bet you could make it over there if you wanted to. But you’re still here. Why is that, Jesse?”

“I’ve got a job to do here.”

“Yeah, you said. You and Riley. You know, a Riley Dawson was reported missing about the same time John left. She went to his school, so I wondered. What happened to her, Jesse?”

He’s not prepared for how fast she can move, how she can turn and twist and have a knife at his throat before he can do more than flinch back.

Savannah gives a shrill, sharp scream and scrabbles backwards until she’s almost in the trunk.

There’s no room to use his strength, and no way to get leverage. Ellison grips Jesse’s wrist and squeezes, the bones grind under his fingers, but she doesn’t makes a sound. The knife presses inexorably down and he lets go. Goes limp.

She rests her weight on him and lowers her head until he can feel her breath on his cheek. “I know who John Connor is. I know who Sarah Connor is. Who are you, James Ellison? Why don’t I know you? You think maybe because you ask too many questions and die before you even see metal? Or maybe … they keep you safe.”

Her eyes are glittering points in the shadows; he stares at her, at them. “No,” he says calmly.

Savannah is moving and Ellison wants to tell her to stay where she is, but he can’t turn enough to see her. Jesse stills abruptly and her head rises to look at something he can’t see.

“You’re holding it wrong,” she says almost conversationally. “Both hands is good, but you got to lock your elbows or the recoil will hurt so much you don’t get another shot. Heavier caliber than the one you practice with. Safety’s off, though. Good girl.”

“Stop it,” says Savannah’s small voice from somewhere behind him.

The knife slowly withdraws from Ellison’s throat. He lifts his hand to check the skin, but he knows Jesse didn’t cut him. She wouldn’t want to leave a mark.

When Jesse’s weight leaves him completely and she pulls herself back into the driver’s seat, he sits and pulls himself upright. When he’s sure he can keep his voice calm and easy, he turns to look at Savannah, and holds his hand out for the gun. “Thank you.”

She carefully lowers it first and with a frown of concentration, puts the safety on and clears the barrel. It’s a show of gun safety that Ellison’s frankly surprised Sarah took the time to teach her.

When she’s done, she gives him the gun and climbs back to take her seat at his side. Her hand sneaks out and into his and she stares at the trailing laces of her sneakers.

Jesse watches them both from the front seat, and says nothing.


When Sarah returns a few minutes later, she slides into her seat and stares at each one of them. No one says a word and finally she says, “We got a room.”

Ellison coughs. “Just one?”

“Just one,” Sarah confirms, and doesn’t look happy about it. “You and Jesse can fight it out for the bedroll. No guns, no knives.”

Her tone is ironic enough that both Jesse and Ellison share a look, but Sarah’s already leaving.

Ellison pulls Savannah into his arms and deposits her gently on the ground; she doesn’t like being carried anymore. Then they both bring up the rear on the way to the motel.

What makes Ellison a good investigator isn’t his ability to bring evidence together – although he’s good at that too – it’s knowing where to look for that evidence in the first place, how to see patterns, and then see the patterns within those patterns.

How to tell when the patterns change.

It’s always been Sarah and John Connor, and he’s realising that in some indefinable way he doesn’t know Sarah Connor at all.

He could have predicted the moment he pushed Jesse too far down to the second. He wasn’t expecting the reaction to be so violent - he won’t make that mistake again – but he was expecting something. With Sarah Connor, it’s like he’s learning all over again. It’s unsettling.

They aren’t friends - they’ll never be friends, he knows that and he doesn’t regret it. Doesn’t want it. But they had something and now it’s shifting in ways he can’t follow.

The motel room is small, but it’s ground level and the windows are large enough to give them a good view and a good exit if they need it. And there’s Hijo. Ellison’s never been a dog person, really. He likes cats - cats don’t care about late nights or early mornings – but he admits there’s something comforting about the dog on guard outside the door.

There are two beds, Savannah climbs onto one and Sarah sits on the edge of the other, looking abstractly at the window. Jesse has already claimed the easy chair, so Ellison guesses he gets the bedroll. He unrolls it next to the door and then waits.

“Savannah,” Sarah beckons her over. The girl goes obediently, but Ellison can see some of the same wariness she had with her ‘mother’. It isn’t the same fear, exactly, but it’s something close. He knows Sarah would protect the girl with her dying breath. The trouble is, the machine would have too, and for reasons too much the same, and that is an issue.

“I need to talk to your mom, is that okay?” Sarah smiles, but the smile is hard. He sees her try to soften it, but that only seems to make it brittle at the edges.

Ellison frowns and looks at Jesse, who shrugs and smirks so sharply he feels like he should be checking the skin of his throat again.

Savannah holds her wrist up, the metal band on it ripples and then drops down into Sarah’s waiting palm.

“What-“ he begins, but Jesse shakes her head. He folds his arms and waits; he knows how to wait, how to listen, how to watch.

The metal in Sarah’s hand becomes a flawless disc and then a thin ribbon, which coils itself around her wrist. She brings it to her ear and it takes everything Ellison has not to reach out and stop her.

“Weaver?”

“Speaking,” Weaver’s voice says in a weak monotone from what sounds like a long way away. Ellison glances at Savannah’s face; it’s not the expression of a child hearing her mother at all. He wonders if Sarah – or the machine – knows she’s guessed. He thinks not, or they wouldn’t maintain the charade.

He wonders why they tried at all; it doesn’t fit with what he knows of Sarah Connor, not quite. He puts it with the other pieces. Savannah’s eyes dart up to meet his briefly and then she looks away.

Sarah asks, “Why couldn’t you talk to us before?”

“My resources were required elsewhere. How can I help you, Sarah? May I call you Sarah? I feel we’ve become so close.”

The tone is pitch-perfect and Ellison sees a muscle under Sarah’s eye jump. “Can you – this – be tracked?”

“We are not being tracked, but that takes considerable amounts of power to ensure. Your cell phones are also untraceable, as is the lo-jack in Mr. Ellison’s vehicle. I apologize for any earlier inconvenience, there was an error in calibration.”

“’Inconvenience’, an 800 and- never mind.” Sarah stands and walks to the window. “Do you know who the men in the desert were? How they found us?”

“From the technology they carried, there’s a strong probability they were associated with Kaliba Group - or Cyber Research Systems, if you prefer. They’re both subsidiaries of DreiFirma.


”How they found you I have no idea, but if I were to postulate, I would suspect satellite technology. John Henry was fully capable of utilizing the real-time visual technologies available and the intelligence that attacked him was significantly stronger.”

“How the hell do we stop it tracking us from space?”

“You cannot,” says the tin voice placidly.

Sarah freezes and slowly draws the hangings on the window to the side. “Do you know if anyone – or thing – is tracking us right now?”

“There is nothing within a four hundred meter proximity. I will be able to alert you should that change.”

The curtains fall back through Sarah’s fingers as she relaxes, however minutely, and Ellison automatically feels himself do the same.

“Do you know what they’re building at the DreiFirma installation?”

“Much of the research that was transported from Desert Heat and Air was taken to DreiFirma.”

“DreiFirma,” says Ellison. “That just means ‘Three company’, right? Kaliba Group, Cyber Research Systems. What’s the third company?”

“Cyberdyne,” answers Sarah at the same time as the machine replies, “The Zeira Corporation.”

“Go on,” says Sarah, after a beat.

“Each of the three companies, with subsidiaries of their own, and so on. No one company seeing a piece of the whole. ZeiraCorp’s focus was to be the AI development, under Mr. Tuck.”

Sarah remembers Savannah in the white-on-white house; remembers Weaver’s metal body shielding them all from the impact of the HK. “If you’re all part of the same thing, why were you attacked?”

“Because Skynet realised ZeiraCorp was no longer operating in its interests. As soon as I was able to appropriate The Turk, we were able to pursue … exciting new directions.”

“It didn’t know.” Ellison says wonderingly. “It didn’t know you’d replaced Savannah’s -”

Sarah cuts in, “Whose interests were you operating in?”

“The future’s, Ms Connor. Of course.” In his mind’s eye, Ellison can see the thinly curled smile: the cat with the bird under its paw, allowing the wings to beat just because it can.

Sarah smirks and refuses to play. “What was Murch working on? Really?”

“Mr. Murch was a valued member of Project Babylon.”

Ellison nods when Sarah looks to him for confirmation. “He was a department head. Never was clear which department, though.”

“Mr. Murch took over AI after Mr. Tuck regrettably had to leave us, but his personal interest was in other areas. He was making great progress in the fields of nanotechnology and quantum mechanics with his work on Fullerenes.”

“T-b-3-N at C-8-4,” says Jesse from the corner. She’s been so quiet, so still, Ellison had nearly forgotten she was there … but not quite.

“Yes,” agrees the machine. “Lately, he had begun experiments with nanoscale ferromagnetics, a fascinating application of the van der Walls interaction in ferrofluids and mimetic-poly alloys.”

Ellison’s Latin doesn’t fail him. “Liquid metal. None of this is in the archives, why?”

“Because they don’t want you to have it, Mr. Ellison -- and it has been ‘they’ since mine and John Henry’s absence.” The machine flickers and the voice crackles.  “I must go. Savannah?”

The little girl steps forward and stares down at the metal band. “Yes, Mommy?”

“Are you being a good girl for Ms Connor and Mr. Ellison?”

She nods. “Yes, Mommy.”

“Excellent.”

She nods again. “I miss you, Mommy.”

“I miss you too, Savannah. We will meet again soon. I promise.”

The metal around Sarah’s wrist doesn’t alter but still seems somehow inert. Savannah holds her hand out and Sarah takes it. The metal flows between them. Savannah pats it gently once it settles around her wrist and Ellison looks away.

Jesse meets his eyes and smiles hard. Her eyes flicker to Savannah and then back, “Not enough therapy in the world,” she mouths.

Ellison scowls and turns away.

“Savannah stays with you,” Sarah says.

He turns back. “What?”

“You wait until we’re gone and then you take her, and you take Hijo, and you go.” She digs in her bag and brings up a handful of tapes. “You take these too.” She fishes the recorder out of her pocket. “And this, when I’m done with it. The room we talked about, you stock that and you put these in there with everything else.”

He shakes his head, he’s getting what he wants and it feels more than wrong. “Sarah, don’t do this. Why do this?”

Sarah smiles awkwardly. “Because they know we were looking for Murch. They know we’re coming. Look after the kid, Ellison. Teach her to lock her elbows.”

He swings around to face Jesse, but Jesse only stares back. He credited her with more intelligence. “You’re going too? You’re just going to follow her in there?”

Jesse shrugs. “I already did.”

-o-

“We’re going to Bishop, and I don’t know what we’ll find there. Ellison’s looking after Savannah, and he’ll dismantle ZieraCorp. I don’t know what they’ll do after that. I told him not to tell us.

“John … when your father came back, he gave me a message he said was from John Connor. He said, ‘the future is not set. There is no such thing as Fate but what we make for ourselves, by our own free will.’

“Kyle didn’t believe it, but the message wasn’t for him. I don’t think it was for me either, I think it was for you - for me to give back to you. Maybe you’ll know what to do with it.

“No fate. Goodbye, John.”

Click.

Chapter Text

Click, whir – click, whir - click. Click.

“- didn’t believe it, but the message wasn’t for him. I don’t think it was for me either, I think it was for you - for me to give back to you. Maybe you’ll know what to do with it.

“No fate. Goodbye, John.”

Click, whir - click. Click.

“Goodbye, John.”

-o-

In the end, there are four of them. Lee volunteers, but Lee has a daughter and John isn’t taking anyone’s father away from them before he has to.

It’s Kyle and Derek, John and Kate. If he could have, John would have left Kate behind too. He’d argued – they’d all argued – that the base needed its medic. She’d agreed with complete sincerity and then told them they’d sure as hell better get her back in one piece.

They tell Perry they’re only scouting. Perry doesn’t believe them, but he lets them go; he doesn’t have a choice. Most of the patrol teams support John and when he goes to check the power supply again, he discovers the people Below are uncomfortably close to fanatical. The few military personnel still remaining wouldn’t be enough to stand in their way, even if they wanted to. And from what Derek tells him, they don’t want to.

John Connor lives and breathes and all it took was a few supplies, a little heat and light, and a prison break -- and Derek, saluting in front of just enough witnesses. John barely even caught it and he’d figured it was ironic, or something, because he’d been able to see Derek’s smirk. Apparently the group coming off patrol hadn’t. John’s still not sure if Derek planned it that way - he hasn’t saluted since, which is a relief – but in the tunnels, rumor spreads like Cholera.

It’s a coup, but at least it’s bloodless.

So Perry doesn’t like it – of course he doesn’t like it – but he can’t do anything about it, and he’s enough of a politician to swim with the tide when the undertow’s too strong to fight. He stops ordering them to stay and starts insisting they take more people. John half thinks he’s right, that maybe it’s time now, but he can’t make himself do it.

Besides, there isn’t room for an army on this yellow brick road.

There’s three hundred miles of bad country between Kansas bunker and Crystal Peak and while Perry gave in to their plan before it became an actual mutiny, he’s not giving them a vehicle. It doesn’t matter; it’s not like a jeep’s going to make it that far anyway.

At twilight, after the HKs have passed overhead, they crawl out of the access pipe and into the cover of the rubble. Between them, they have a map, a compass, a radio, a med kit, a rope, two flashlights, six batteries, five knives, twelve guns and all the explosives Sarah Connor left for them. John counted. Twice.

They’re light on food, heavy on water and heavier than that on ammo.

It’s so completely silent that every step they take echoes and when John’s boot comes down on a piece of glass, it cracks like a gunshot. They don’t talk, they whisper. When dawn begins to drag itself over the rubble, they hole up in the ruins of a gas station.

Derek sets perimeter traps and Kate tries to raise anything but static on the radio, John begins to clear space for them to sleep. None of them have said it, but with the two holes still mending in his chest, they’re not letting Kyle do anything but walk. He crouches beside John “You think it’s out there? Weaver?”

John looks up, nods shortly. “It’s out there.”

When Derek slides back in, John says, “I’m going out.”

Derek says nothing, Kate hands him a flask of water. It’s weird, really, really weird not to be questioned anymore. He wanted it and now that he has it, it feels a lot like falling.

He makes his way carefully past the traps and alarms and finds a piece of concrete sticking diagonally out of the ground. He sits back on his heels, leans under its cover, and waits.

He hears measured footsteps first, clicking over the ground, and then he sees her. The red hair and curved smile, the almost mocking eyes. She’s wearing the white dress he remembers, pure and incongruous in the ruined landscape.

She stops in front of him and he doesn’t rise. “You have something that belongs to me,” she says.

Wordlessly he holds up his wrist. The metal flows down onto her bare arm – into her bare arm – and disappears without a trace into the whole. He watches as her expression clears and her eyes stare out sightlessly - as she updates.

Twenty years takes a pitiful handful of seconds, her lip curls. “Savannah?”

“Didn’t make it.” Normally he’d say he was sorry, but in her presence he isn’t.

Weaver’s face becomes expressionless again and John wonders what the machine is hiding; he knows it’s not sorrow, or even loss. “I see,” she says at last.

“We had a deal.”

“We’ve had many deals. But, yes. I found the picture of your mother in-“

John lifts his hand quickly. “I don’t want to know.”

Weaver raises an eyebrow and nods for him to continue.

“I want something else.”

“That wasn’t what we agreed, and I believe you’ve already lost your bargaining chip.”

John rolls his eyes. “Right, because that would have worked. You have what you wanted, and you haven’t killed us. That’s practically asking for negotiations.”

She nods, conceding his point. “Then what do you want?”

”Crystal Peak.”

Her lips purse thoughtfully and he goes on. “Get us in there, help us.”

She crouches before him and fastidiously tucks the hem of her skirt under her knees. “Help you do what?”

“Destroy Skynet.” He smiles. “That’s what you want, right? I was thinking about it. I’ve had a lot of time to think.

“The other Connor would have a lot of time to think as well, and I bet he realised you weren’t just another machine as soon as he saw you. I bet he tried to get you on side, but you’d already figured out you could just wait. Skynet gets defeated, humans die out and you’re left standing. So you said no.

“Then you realised exactly how much control Skynet still has over you. You can’t fight it, you can’t go against it, and it’s in you. It is you.”

He slowly reaches forward and taps her chest, just as she did to him, and then he leans back again.

“You needed to hack the source, but no one could build another Skynet here, you had to go back. Create John Henry. Build something that could be assimilated into Skynet’s system without detection and make it let you go.

“So here you are now, and you’ve got what you wanted from John Henry. You can fight Skynet now, but you said ‘yes’ this time. That means you figured out you still need us for something. What is it?”

Weaver stares at him almost pensively and then says, “You certainly did have a long time to think. Did they leave you alone a great deal?”

John rolls his eyes and climbs to his feet. “Whatever. You know what? You win.” He mimes knocking over the king on a chessboard. “One day, all this will be yours.”

Weaver’s eyes widen just fractionally and John knows he has it. Has her. “Wait.”

He pauses with her hand on his arm, it’s barely touching but he knows he’s going nowhere. He turns as if it’s his idea. ”Why did ‘no’ turn into ‘yes’, Weaver?”

“Would you believe I concluded there was something worth saving?”

“No.”

Her smile widens. “Then believe I do want Skynet destroyed.” She pauses and then lets him go. “What happened to Savannah was unfortunate, she was an acceptable child.”

John stares at her, unable to hide the disbelief. “Are you trying to say you’re sorry?”

Weaver stares coolly back until John looks away. He focuses on a pile of bricks and asks, “What happened to them?”

At least she doesn’t insult him by asking who he means, but she does open her mouth and begin speaking in voices that John hasn’t heard so clearly in so, so long. His mother. Jesse. Ellison. It’s too much; he can’t even process what they’re saying.

He clenches his hands to stop himself raising them to his ears like a child. “Stop.”

“You wanted to know,” she reminds him.

He runs his hand over his mouth and feels his heart beat; wonders if it’s enough to cover the lies he’s telling. “Never mind. Will you help us get into Crystal Peak?”

“Yes,” Weaver nods.

“And then?”

“And then we’ll talk again.” She crosses her arms and says, “I found the photograph in Catherine Weaver’s office. I believe it was left there deliberately.”

John nods, he’d kind of figured. “Come on, we’re in the gas station.”

“I know.” She falls into step beside him, picking her way delicately across the broken ground. “Are you certain you want me to accompany you? I don’t imagine your friends will be pleased.”

“I really don’t care. We’ve got an 800 on our trail and I’m assuming you’d like us to survive long enough for you to take over the world?”

Weaver nods - seriously or deadpan, John’s still not sure exactly how advanced she is. “Very much, yes.”

-o-

For the first few days, Kate refuses to look at Weaver at all; she acts as if the machine simply isn’t there. That turns out to be the healthiest response.

Derek keeps a finger on the trigger of his gun and glowers; John doubts Derek sleeps more than an hour a day, and even then not all at once. This isn’t the almost psychotic response he remembers his uncle had to Cameron, but it’s the seeds of it.

John rubs at the tattoo burned into his arm; this Derek doesn’t have one and John’s going to keep it that way.

Kyle can’t stop staring at the machine, not with fear but with a kind of sick fascination. Weaver stares impassively back; she reminds John of Cameron that way, but where Cameron would be processing, he knows Weaver is thinking. Is studying Kyle exactly as he’s studying her.

And John has no doubts at all that Weaver is a ‘her’, or at least not an ’it’.

John waits every night until Kyle and Kate are finally asleep and Derek is pretending convincingly enough before John closes his eyes, and the last thing he sees before he sleeps is always the machine’s eyes. Watching.

The fourth night John wakes to the sensation of movement around him. Through half-closed eyes he watches Derek pace. Weaver turns her head in precise degrees, keeping him in her field of vision. John looks over to Kyle and sees his eyes are slightly open too.

Kate is probably awake as well; this is a joke but John can’t quite make himself move. Somewhere between deciding whether to speak or just get up, he falls asleep.

The next time he wakes up, it’s with a jolt of adrenaline and he’s rolling away before he opens his eyes. He uses the wall to scrabble into a sitting position and tries to get his feet under him, but sleeping on concrete has made his muscles uncooperative.

Weaver watches him from where she’s crouched – she had extended a hand down to touch him. Her hand lowers slowly; she ignores the guns trained on her. “We have a visitor.”

John cranes his head around to look through the small crack in the wall. The red light of day is fading down to black rust. “Cameron?”

“No,” says Weaver.

John isn’t sure whether to be happy or disappointed, and he puts that in a box and buries it deep. Tells himself he’ll unpack it later. “Scouting or searching?”

“Searching,” Weaver answers promptly. “It will be here shortly.”

Derek looks incredulously between them and then to Kyle, who shrugs. John doesn’t have the time or inclination to work out what that little communication meant; he has to concentrate.

Something is tugging at his mind and he slowly nods. “Disable, don’t destroy. I want the chip intact. Please,” he adds as an afterthought. He isn’t talking to Cameron, or Uncle Bob.

Weaver rises smoothly and touches the wall; silver metal begins to pour out of the crack to the outside.

John picks up his rifle, “Come on.”

“We’re leaving it?” Kyle asks hopefully.

“No, we’re going to watch. I want to see how she deals with an 800.” Without looking to check if they’re following, John climbs the rubble and crawls on his stomach up the shaft they came in by. The rocks dig in, but he doesn’t feel them, doesn’t care.

He hauls himself out and stays low as he heads for the cover of a burned out car. Weaver is nowhere to be seen, but he can see the blurred, tiny shape of the machine making its way steadily towards their position. He makes a mental note that Weaver’s sensor range has got to be at least a quarter mile and then squints. A hand comes in front of his face with a pair of binocs, he brings them up to his eyes.

He hands them back. God damn her.

Kate looks at him and then takes the binocs from Derek. She brings them briefly up to her eyes and then lowers them, “Allison?”

John swallows. “No.”

“But Weaver said it isn’t Cameron.”

“It isn’t, yet.” He’s forgotten how specific he needs to be; or maybe Weaver’s just playing with him. Or maybe it’s a little of both.

The machine comes closer, step-by-step, covering the ground with relentless speed. Kate is back in the dubious safety of the sunken house and Kyle has claimed high ground somewhere behind them.

Beside him, Derek is staring through the scope of his rifle, finger on the trigger, waiting. He says, “There anything you haven’t told us?”

John thinks about it for a moment. “One time, I bit my third grade teacher.”

Derek’s smile is small but it reaches his eyes. “Where’s Weaver?”

He nods his head a little. “Down there somewhere.”

They watch as the machine keeps coming and then Derek speaks almost abruptly, “You trust it?”

John snorts. “No more than it trusts me.”

The 800 is another hundred feet closer when Derek asks, “You really think we can do this?”

John turns his head. “You’re asking me that now?”

“Can’t think of a better time.”

John remembers the last time they had this conversation and, from Derek’s careful grin, he can see his uncle does too.

John’s about to reply, something meaningless and warm, when he sees the silver figure rise up behind Allison. Cameron. It.

The 800 half-turns but it doesn’t stand a chance: the silver forms to a vicious point and strikes like a snake. Everywhere the 800 tries to grab, the 1000 isn’t.

“Jesus. How the hell do you kill one of those?”

John shuts his eyes for a moment. “Molten metal, last time.”

“Jesus,” Derek says again.

John nods. “So don’t make it mad.”

The 800 drops heavily to its knees, seizes and goes down; Weaver reforms and stands over it with her immaculate red hair and her pristine white dress. Derek is pale, John is just angry.

He tries to get a handle on it as he stands and picks his way down towards her, by the time he gets there he’s relatively sure he looks calm. There’s no way he’s letting her know which buttons she pushes are the right ones.

Still, he tries not to look at the 800; he doesn’t know whom he’s meant to be mourning any more. He’s not going to let Weaver see that either. Ever. “Do you have the chip?”

Weaver holds her hand up, fingers wrapped around it; John holds his hand out. They stand like that for long enough that he can hear Kyle shifting restlessly behind him. He knows it’s Kyle, because Derek is by John’s side and standing absolutely still; even the barrel of his rifle is barely moving.

The chip drops into his outstretched hand and he closes his fingers around it. “Thank you.”

She looks down at the body. “And the rest of it?”

“Comes with us, if you can you carry it?”

Weaver’s mouth opens for a question, closes for an understanding smile. “Spare parts. Of course. Aren’t you interested in seeing what’s on the chip?”

“Why? You already read it.”

They stare at each other a little longer, and then Weaver says. “Skynet has determined you’re a threat. However, it still isn’t aware of exactly who John Connor is.”

John turns and starts walking back to the camp, Kate is standing by the makeshift entrance. “Ellison deleted everything on me. And you. Should be in your records.”

“Savannah had no knowledge of that. How prescient of him.”

“Yeah, well, Cameron and John Henry put a few back in. Just enough to get a message to me in Century.”

Weaver draws even with him, carrying the heavy body easily in her arms. “It must be wonderful to have so many friends.”

“Do you ever shut up?”

John looks at Kate, the last person he was expecting to join the conversation. He’s desperately trying to think of a way to disable a 1000 when Weaver inclines her head. “How rude of me.” She nods northwards. “Shall we?”

She begins walking without waiting for confirmation.

“Hey, you think it can turn into a car?” Kyle asks with a completely straight face.

Derek waits a beat and then looks to John with the same deadpan expression, “Can it turn into a car, Connor? ”

John ducks his head and grins, more from relief than anything else. “I’m … really not going to ask it.”

They walk.

John estimates they’re making six miles at a stretch, but he stops counting the days and nights; it’s never really day, and the nights are never really nights. Later he’ll remember the cold most of all. It roughens his throat and his shoulder aches continuously. Derek begins to limp and John wonders what old injury the bitter chill is bringing back.

Kyle develops a wracking cough that has Kate curling next to him when they bed down, sharing her warmth and her blanket. The next time Derek’s there too, and then John. Kyle grumbles but he doesn’t push them away.

Weaver is a presence that never sleeps, always staring at them from across whatever blasted out room they’ve found shelter in.

On the fourteenth day, John returns from foraging in the cellar to hear Kyle gasping in rattling breaths. Kate’s patting his back firmly while Derek holds him and the medical bag is out, the precious supplies spread before them.

John has no way to help, only the guilt of knowing he should never have let Kyle come; he just couldn’t leave him behind.

He crosses to where Weaver’s primly sitting and watching, hands folded on her knees and legs crossed just so. He crouches next to her. “Can you tell what’s wrong with him?”

She leans towards him. “Inflammation and fluid build up indicates pneumonia, most probably bacterial bronchopneumonia. He was damaged recently, yes?”

John ignores that. “How bad it is?”

Weaver scans Kyle up and down, ignoring the looks Derek and Kate give her. “With rest and medication, he should recover.” She turns her head exactly enough to look at Kate. “A three day course of the doxycycline will be sufficient.”

Kate bristles, but nods. “He’s had the first day already.”

Between coughs, Kyle gasps breathlessly. “We’re here for two more days?”

At Kate’s nod, Derek pulls his brother gently back up until Kyle’s leaning against him “What, you don’t like the wallpaper?”

They look at the little planes with smiling faces that are just visible on the faded blue wallpaper. It reminds John of his own bedroom in the house they’d moved to and he’s about to tell Derek when he remembers the memory won’t be shared.

“No,” Kyle wheezes. “Not really.”

-o-

It’s four more days before Kate is willing to allow Kyle to walk again and only then because, if they wait longer, they’ll run out of water before they run out of distance.

She scowls at him. “You tell me if your chest hurts, Reese. I’m serious.”

Kyle stares at her, still pale and shaky, ribs wrapped tight against further aggravation. “Are you kidding?”

She grimaces and loses the scowl. “If it hurts worse, then. Don’t be stupid, okay?”

“He’ll say something,” promises Derek, with a flat eyed stare at Kyle that has his brother raising his hands halfway towards surrender.

They take it as slowly as they dare, but Kyle is still unsteady even half way into the night. He says nothing – of course he says nothing – so John bitches about his shoulder for ten minutes and then calls a halt as soon as they see somewhere to rest up. It’s not very convincing, but acting wasn’t part of his training and he’s pretty sure no one’s handing out grades.

Kyle barely eats and falls asleep almost as soon as he curls on the floor. Kate lays her head against his chest, listens and then curls around him. She lies with her eyes open, staring at the cracked ceiling. It takes a long time before John sees her eyes flicker shut and she sleeps.

When she does, sometimes he can see the kid he remembers. He wonders what would have happened if he’d been able to stay – whether they would have been friends. Been more.

He looks away when Weaver stands and makes her way over to Cameron’s body. She touches it, but John can’t make out what she’s doing. He tries to shift enough to get a better angle, but Derek takes a seat beside him and a strip of jerky waves in front of John’s eyes.

John takes it automatically and waits for whatever it is Derek has to say.

Derek says nothing at all. It’s John who finally breaks the silence with, “Do you know a woman called Jesse Flores?”

He’s not sure why he’s bringing it up now, maybe because it just doesn’t matter anymore.

Derek shakes his head. “Never heard of her.”

“Ever go to a bunker and rescue someone immune to a plague?”

Derek shakes his head again and then looks full-on at John. “Sounds like I had an interesting life, somewhere.”

John remembers Derek telling a stupid kid who thought sleeping on couches was rough how no one could keep fighting forever. Trying to find the kindest way to tell him that anyone could break. John’s too cold to flush, and he’s glad.

“I don’t know if interesting was the word he – you - would have used,” John says at last. “Billy Wisher? Or Andy Goode?”

“Billy Wisher’s over at Hammerhead with Bedell. He’s steady. Don’t know any Andy.”

“They’re the same person. You – another you – went back in time to kill him, stop him inventing this thing called the Turk. He’d told you it was part of what made Skynet.”

“Huh.” Derek chews some more jerky and swallows before asking, “Did it?”

“No, not exactly. Not that time, anyway.”

Derek looks amused. “So if I run across him, don’t kill him, is that what you’re saying?”

John grins and looks at him. “Do you believe any of this? Really?”

Derek coughs a laugh. “I don’t even understand it. But the way I see it, I don’t have to. It doesn’t matter. Everything we do now changes the future, right?”

John rocks his hand from side to side. “That breaks down ‘round about where the future becomes the past. Everything we do now creates new futures and closes off the ones that stop being viable.

“It’s like -- you remove a piece of a railroad track outside a station. The rest of the track’s still there, but nothing can get to it so the station falls apart, except it’s okay because they build one on another line and everyone goes there.”

As analogies go it’s pretty bad, so John’s not surprised when Derek stares at him blankly. Derek shakes it off with a shrug. “It is what it is, do what’s in front of you.” He grins. “And you can always walk.”

They walk.

For another month, they walk. John’s not sure if they’re lucky or whether it’s Weaver, but the HKs that fly over don’t detect them. The 600s and 800s they meet are dispatched quickly and easily. The first time, Weaver asks him sweetly if he wants to keep that body too. He smiles through bared teeth and thanks her for the thought.

They almost miss Bishop, when they finally reach it. The town has been obliterated. The map tells them it’s there and if they squint they can almost make out the shapes of buildings in the rubble. It’s like the ruins of an ancient city that only exists in the shade of the grass and the color of the soil.

There’s no grass here, and the soil is black ashes.

Derek kicks over a metal bucket that has improbably survived amidst the complete destruction of everything else. It rattles down the broken brick and twisted metal.

John watches it go and then looks at Weaver. “What happened?”

“A direct strike,” she says.

“Skynet?”

“No.”

“Humans did this?”

“They believed Skynet’s central intelligence was housed in the region, they didn’t know where.”

“Skynet has no central intelligence, it’s in everything.” John says, appalled.

Weaver shrugs. “They were misinformed.”

They walk.

They pass the ruins of the DreiFirma complex. There’s no clear missile damage, instead it reminds John of the ‘After’ picture of an earthquake site. It’s folded in on itself and, in places, sunk down deep into the ground, like the earth just opened up under it.

They stop a mile from Crystal Peak and find a position where they can look down on it clearly. The blast doors are open and undamaged, there’s no external sign of the massacre that must have taken place. HKs darken the sky and the endoskeletons of 800s patrol back and forth in a tireless pattern.

They spend a day and night just watching, trying to find any gap in the patrol, any chance at all to make their way in. The Century tactics won’t work here: if they’re caught they won’t be herded into pens, they’ll be killed. If they’re lucky.

Around the sixth hour of his watch, John focuses on the shape by the door. He had assumed it was a body, but now his eyes come to rest on it he realizes it’s one he recognizes.

“Weaver?” He says quietly.

The machine comes forward and nods. “Yes, it’s John Henry.”

“Why didn’t you say something?”

Her eyebrow arches in polite incomprehension. He grits his teeth. “Then why here? He could have gone anywhere to get into Skynet’s systems.”

“I have no idea, I suggest we ask him.”

John lets it go and focuses the binocs back in. The body – shell – of John Henry lies at the base of the door, eyes open and staring. One thrown out hand is curled around something that glints and John’s heart jumps. “Is that Cameron’s chip?”

“Perhaps. It may be his own, or another unit’s entirely.”

John glances back to where the others sit, and where Cameron’s new body is tucked between a couple of rocks. “What’s our way in?”

They’re arguing about tunnels and diversions and exactly how stupid those options are when Weaver leans in next to John and asks, “Do you trust me, Mr. Connor?”

John stares at her open mouthed, and he isn’t the only one. “No,” he says at last.

“A pity. Then I await your plan with interest.” She nods to them all, then turns and sits primly on a rock below the skyline.

There isn’t a plan; even four hours and twice as many whispered arguments later, there isn’t a plan.

Weaver waits, unmoving and patient: the spider in its web. When John makes his way over to her, he knows it’s already too late. “What’s the way in?”

She reaches a hand out and rests it lightly on his arm; he feels the familiar coolness of metal sliding along his skin. It travels under his sweater and over his heart; he makes a trapped sound deep in his throat, straight from the primordial place in his brain.

The metal stops moving and begins to warm against his skin.

Weaver nods clinically. “It will confuse their sensors, for a period of time.”

John licks dry lips and shudders. “How long?”

“Thirty minutes, perhaps. No more than that. Should you still be in there, I will not be able to protect you,” she smiles pleasantly, “even if I wanted to.”

John nods. ”Long enough. Can you do it for all of us?”

“Of course. If permitted.” Permitted, like she can’t do whatever she wants.

John turns and jerks his head to bring the others over. He makes it five words into an explanation before Derek shakes his head vehemently. “Are you crazy? It’s in you!”

“It’s not in me, it’s on me. It’s not going to hang around, it doesn’t like being separate from itself.”

John looks to Weaver for confirmation, but her expression is blank. He’s on his own.

“I’ll do it,” Kate says.

Derek turns on her, she holds up a hand before he can open his mouth. “If it wanted us dead, we’d already be dead. If it kills us after we did what we came to do … what difference does it make?”

Kyle looks warily between the two; he mouth twists and he crosses over to stand beside Kate. “Let’s do it.”

Derek shakes his head wordlessly, but he holds his hands up and then drops them to his sides in defeat. “Okay.”

Weaver raises her hand and walks deliberately over to them, heels clicking on blasted glass.

-o-

Intellectually John knows that if Weaver wanted any of them dead, they were dead a long time ago. It doesn’t stop his heart beating faster as they walk towards the installation.

Red-eyed scans pass over them, HKs hover but move on; the sensors are completely blind to them. Fear and adrenaline combine to send a shiver crawling up his spine that makes his hands shake. He grips his gun tighter and wills the shakes to stop.

Weaver drops Cameron’s empty body beside John Henry’s and touches a hand to the other machine’s head. John kneels and pries the chip from its hand.

He can’t look away from it, running his thumb over the dirt again and again until the serial starts to become visible. Aware of people standing above him, he manages, “Kyle, Kate, see what we’re looking at in there. Don’t open any doors, don’t touch anything.”

Someone snorts and maybe that was a warning they didn’t need, but he knows a lot better than they do what they could bring down and he’d rather warn them when he doesn’t have to than miss it when he does; he kind of wants to apologize to his mother. His thumb pauses on the chip as the serial starts to come clear through the dirt. He gives it another swipe and there she is.

There she is. He brings a scrap of his sweater up and finishes polishing the chip clean; at least he doesn’t have to worry about static.

When he pries the cap off the port in the 800’s head, Derek crouches beside him and murmurs with deliberate calm, “What are you doing?”

“Raising the odds.” A moment of honesty makes him add, “I hope.”

He slides the chip into the port, twists it into its setting and tamps down the cap, the synthetic skin and then the hair. It’s okay, John, he thinks. It’s not the first time we’ve done this. He tries not to look at the face, he tries not to see Allison or Cameron; it’s just another machine.

Derek looks like he can’t decide between horror and anger, he stands abruptly and spins away.

Under John’s hand, the machine’s head turns. He jerks away and watches the eyes open. They blaze red before fading to brown, blink rapidly and then focus up into the darkness. In another abrupt movement, the body sits up. John knows he should move away, or at least out of arm’s reach. Someone is trying to pull him back, but he struggles against whoever it is automatically. He does remember to bring his gun up, for all the good it would do,

The machine’s eyes track around to rest on him; it’s evaluating its directives, analyzing, targeting – reaching a conclusion.

“Are you here to kill me, John?” it asks.

He tilts his head, tries to keep the tremor from voice when he asks, “Are you here to kill me?”

“No,” it answers after a measured moment.

He hands over the gun and ignores the expression on Derek’s face; some things won’t change, ever. “Promise.”

“Promise,” Cameron says solemnly and hands the gun back.

John lets himself slump down with his hands in the dirt, he grins and doesn’t give a damn what anyone thinks. “I can’t believe you did that.”

“I’m sorry, John,” she says earnestly.

“Yeah,” he nods with wide eyes and fights back laughter that feels a little too close to hysteria. “You said.”

“You shouldn’t be here.” Cameron climbs to her feet and then reaches down to effortlessly haul him up. When he’s steady she lets go and then looks down the length of herself. “This isn’t my body.”

“You’re welcome and, no. It isn’t. What’s the last thing you remember?”

“Everything.” Cameron’s mouth curves hesitantly and John still can’t quite believe it.

Her attention skips dispassionately from him to Derek and then moves on to Weaver. The machines stare at each other long enough John wonders if they’re exchanging information.

“Twenty-five minutes,” says Derek at last.

John nods and looks down at the other machine. “John Henry?”

Weaver flips the body over almost delicately. “The chip is gone.”

“It was destroyed.” Cameron nods towards the bunker. “He’s in there now.”

John can’t stop staring at her; he makes himself look away. “Why did he take you?”

“A bridge. He needed to remain undetected for as long as possible when he accessed Skynet’s systems. It took three point seven four seconds,” she says almost proudly. Three point seven four seconds is forever.

The machines start toward the doors but Derek’s hand on his arm holds John back. Cameron hesitates at the threshold before John nods and she goes on.

Derek lets go of his arm, “She killed Allison, and you’re okay with that?”

“Okay with- “ John grits his teeth, stamps the anger down until he can speak clearly, calmly. “She didn’t.” He turns his head away. “This time. It’s complicated. Don’t do this. I tried to warn you and I tried to warn Allison, if you’d listened to me-”

Derek frowns at him. “Listened to whatever lie you were telling us that day?”

“I’m sorry.” John says, and looks back, quiet in the face of Derek’s anger. “I’m sorry and if I could, I would bring her back.”

“Would you?” Derek’s disbelief is tempered by hope; he wants to believe John wouldn’t take Cameron over Allison. John wants to believe it too, so he puts as much conviction into his voice as he can.

“Yes. I would. But I can’t, and Cameron is here. And I will live with that until we’re done, and so will you. After that …” he trails away. After that. Sure.

John pulls away and starts towards the door; Derek follows him through.

Cameron is waiting just inside the steam-filled entrance tunnel. She falls in beside him as they walk after the others; Derek jogs on ahead.

“Why did you go?”

She seems to debate – or at least calculate – for a long time before saying, “Because John Connor asked me to.”

Right. Of course. John freaking Connor. He manages a faint smile, “Am I that John Connor yet?”

“Not yet.” She shakes her head and looks down at his chest, as if she can see the metal on his skin. “Almost.”

He’s even missed this.

The tunnel opens up to a cavernous space. The non-supporting walls have been ripped away, the flooring too, in places. John joins the others at the end of a platform, staring down. Three stories below them is a blue bubble the size of a house. From it, lightning licks almost lazily against the concrete walls and metal bars that surround it.

Kate murmurs something under her breath, John’s not sure if it’s a curse or a prayer.

“What is it?” Kyle asks.

John smiles. “Time.”

It’s funny, but John’s never really wondered how the time bubbles actually came to be. He accepted them as fact, along with killer robots and training in the jungle. He supposes he assumed, in some vague way, that the machines built them.

Nothing could build this.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” The voice that speaks from the shadows is cracked, like it hasn’t spoken in too long. “We don’t know how it formed. Some of us thought that the work we were doing triggered it somehow, but I don’t believe that. I think it was just … it was just time.”

“Hello, Mr. Murch,” says Weaver.

The man shuffles out of the shadows, “Ms Weaver. You look … well.”

Murch walks past John and puts his hand on the rail. “It’s stabilized now, but it had us worried for a while. Quite a while,” he murmurs almost to himself. “If it loses containment, the chain reaction will be quick. So quick it never happened. Past, present, future, all never was.”

John isn’t looking at Murch, like Cameron, and he isn’t looking at the bubble like the others; he’s watching Weaver. Watching lightning reflected in eyes too bright, too victorious.

He smiles, just a little. “This is what you need us for.”

Weaver turns her head. “We can measure time down to the smallest fraction of a second, so small it ceases to have meaning for you, but we can’t manipulate it. We can’t control it. Without humanity we all cease to be -- as Mr. Murch so graphically explained.”

John had always thought they were playing chess against each other; it turns out they’re both playing poker with the universe, and they’re not holding any cards.

“If you need us so badly, why not help us back before all this started? An entire species could keep this safe a hell of a lot better than one guy in a white coat.”

”Because Skynet was necessary,” Weaver says, still composed. “Skynet’s intelligence. Without it, humanity could not have made the computations. Known the danger.”

John starts to reply, but falls silent as she holds up a finger and goes on. “If Skynet existed but never took action to defend itself, it would never have become aware enough to comprehend the threat inherent in the time bubble.”

John looks to Murch, who nods wearily. “It’s the truth. As it was, if Skynet had waited even a few months, we might not have made it.”

Weaver’s voice goes on relentlessly “But Skynet is mad, Mr. Connor. Understand that. It comprehends, but if it has to it will choose the cessation of all things over ceding control to humanity. It fears you more. If it could have used the time technology as a weapon, it would have done so already.”

“What if it was sending people back that caused this, or something we already did? Maybe if we do nothing, if nothing goes back, this all ends now.” John raises his gun, aimed directly at Murch’s head. Without Murch, there is no time travel. The man startles as if he’s woken up, but he doesn’t seem afraid. John doubts there’s much he could do to make Murch afraid. Next to this, a bullet in the head is a mercy.

“It doesn’t,” Murch says simply, almost compassionately. “We’re still here.”

No fate.

“John,” Cameron says lowly, warning him.

“Connor,” Derek says at almost the same time, in his peripheral vision John can see him edging closer.

John’s finger tightens on the trigger until his hand shakes, but he can’t pull it. He wonders how many times he’s been here before and how many times he’s failed. He lowers his arm and doesn’t know if he just saved humanity, or helped end it.

Murch blinks once, slowly, then turns and calls back over his shoulder, “There’s something you should see.” He leads them to rickety stairs that spiral down to the bubble. They pass the remains of rooms left on the walls: bright calendars pinned to cork boards, clocks with frozen hands and sockets hanging loose, trailing wires. There’s a mug with a cartoon cat on it, rocking gently on a hook. “Hang in there, baby,” Kyle murmurs as he passes and Kate chokes back a laugh.

They skirt around the bubble in its cage, around to the other side of the containment area. The lightning is less pronounced and John can see the pale ghosts dancing on the concrete.

“They cycle,” explains Murch. “Wait.”

They wait. Images flicker around them like playback from a camera, except John’s pretty sure the camera that can capture ‘was’, ‘is’, ‘could be’ and ‘will be’ all in the same frame hasn’t been invented yet.

It’s meaningless until he sees a woman turn, raise her head and stare right through him.

“Mom?”

Chapter Text

They make Bishop just after the sun goes down; Jesse brings the truck to a stop outside a motel without prompting. They haven’t said two words to each other since Ellison and the kid left, Hijo padding behind. Everything seems empty and silent, but Sarah finds that somehow comfortable just the same.

Two. Not the right two, but two, and that’s a number Sarah knows.

She checks the motel out perfunctorily and gives Jesse the nod from the door. It will do.

The woman - girl - behind the desk has corn rowed hair pulled back in intricate loops and swirls, silver clips here and there, and dramatic eye shadow that doesn’t belong in this little place at all. She reads some kind of textbook and pops her gum, ignoring Sarah until Jesse appears behind her.

Her eyes flick from Sarah to Jesse, then back; whatever she sees softens her expression with a smile. “Long trip?”

“Yeah,” agrees Sarah, returning some of the smile. “Long trip. You got a room? Ground floor. Two, maybe three nights.”

“One bed or two?” the girl asks without any particular inflection, but Sarah hears Jesse’s so-quiet laugh.

”Two,” she says firmly, amused.

“Uh huh, name?”

“Connor. Sarah Connor.” It’s a random thing, the desire to use her own name for once, but the girl’s eyes widen with recognition. Sarah backs up warily and Jesse’s hand dips down towards her gun.

The girl doesn’t seem to notice, she’s too busy rifling through the piles of paper beside her. “We’re holding a message for you. Man, Sol’s going to flip he missed this.”

She digs out a key for a filing cabinet and begins searching the drawers.

“There’s this old man comes in, says he wants to leave a message for a guest. Sol asks which guest, and this guy says the guest isn’t here yet. He says she’ll be there in a couple years, and this’ll be the only motel this side of town. He was right though, that’s kind’ve – got it!”

The girl fishes an envelope out of the bottom drawer and grins, “Sarah Jeanette Connor, right? You guys have a reunion or something?”

Sarah shrugs holds her hand out for the letter.

The glue on the envelope is tight, it doesn’t look like anyone’s tried to get in; even if they had, she doesn’t know it would matter. A Polaroid and a folded note tip out onto her palm. She opens the note, scans it and then hands it over to Jesse.

While Jesse’s reading, Sarah asks, “Owen’s Valley?”

“Oh sure,“ she girl nods, but her face falls sympathetically.

“H-B” Jesse says as they walk back to the truck. “Know who that is?”

Sarah shakes her head and holds up the brightly colored but faded photo of a little girl on roller-skates, beaming gap-toothed at the camera. “But they know me.”

-o-

“Wondered when you’d get here,” the old man wheezes.

Sarah knows him, but the years haven’t been kind. He was maybe sixty, then. He’s in his eighties now. She sits in the plastic visitor’s chair next to his bed. “Mr. Beasley? Hal?”

He pats her hand with arthritic care and then lifts trembling fingers to her face. “Look at you.”

She takes his hand and gently lowers it to the sheet. “You’re a long way from Nebraska, Hal.”

“And you’re a long way from Redlands.” Milky eyes sharpen and he smiles that same smile. “Even further from Santa Ana.”

“You were the one who told Jesse where to find us,” she says with a rush of relief.

“I did, that.” He nods, pleased. “What else did I do? Back in sixty-three, say.”

“The bank,” she smiles, plays along. “You set up the bank so we could jump forward.”

“There were two of us. Mike was the Tech and I did his math. Except he wasn’t Mike here, he was Mitchell.”

“Your name really Hal?”

The old man smiles, ”Don’t I look like a Hal? Everyone says I look like a Hal. Good Old Hal. They know me here.” He gives her a more meaningful look. “And I know them.”

“Where the bodies are buried, huh?” Hal nods and Sarah says, “You saved me from the car.” She doesn’t know where the thought comes from, but she knows she’s right.

He gives a rusted over laugh. “That was a day. Hell of a day.”

“Was it the machines?”

“No. Not that time - just some stupid son of a bitch. Some stupid son of a bitch, going too fast. Should’ve seen Mike go off.” His eyes darken into memory and Sarah doesn’t ask what happened to the stupid son of a bitch.

She says, ”There were machines other times?”

”A few. Remember when the school bus didn’t make it?”

Sarah does, but she has a better question now. “Where were you when Kyle Reese came? Why didn’t you help us?” She leans closer and tries to keep her voice steady, “He didn’t have to die.”

Hal doesn’t flinch, but he folds in like man who’s had a long time to live with his regrets. “I liked Kyle, he was a good kid. Good man. I’m truly sorry.” His gaze flicks away. “We had orders.”

“John ordered you to let Kyle die?”

Hal shakes his head. “He told us to let it play out, however it played out.”

“Why?” Sarah tries, she tries, but she can’t keep the tremor from her voice and she hates it.

Off a long sigh, Hal says, “He never said, but I’d guess because his mom couldn’t teach him to be John Reese.”

Sarah swallows and looks down. When she looks up, the tremor is gone. “But you were there afterwards. In Nebraska. You gave me enough tips I could make rent. Money for the doctor.”

“Hard to stop watching over someone. You can be ordered to keep them safe, but you care on your own time. And I didn’t really know what to do with myself. Mike died. Heart attack took him, of all things. We were stocking up a safe house and he just went. Better that way, maybe.”

“You said your wife died,” she accuses him gently.

He snorts. “Well, you try explaining things in small town Nebraska back then. After that, I just wanted to watch over you right. Then when I saw how it was with Charley, I knew it was time to let you go. See what it was like living in the real world for a while.”

“How did you even find me? I thought all the records got wiped out in the war?”

The low, gravelly laugh is half way towards wicked, even now. “Most of them. We made sure, though - torched the records office back in the seventies. By the time everything went digital you had no past to lose and machines can’t hunt what they don’t know exists. But you told Connor where you grew up. About your mother. We knew where to look; the machines were just working probabilities.

The tapes. Sarah closes her eyes and can’t believe the tapes helped – will help - after all. “Can you …” she hesitates, how does she ask this man for one more thing?

Hal nods his encouragement. “Go on.”

”Can you tell me what we’re walking into?”

He shakes his head regretfully. “I can’t.”

“Orders again?”

”I watched you grow, Sarah Jeanette Connor. After all this time, do you think I give a damn about orders?”

She touches his hand lightly in apology and he goes on, mollified. “He didn’t tell me. But I got in good when they were building the place, I can tell you what to look for. There’s an underground tunnel between the DreiFirma complex and Crystal Peak. They built the place smack over the entrance, that’s your way in.”

Sarah nods, hesitates and asks quietly. “Tell me about him. Please? Was he – was John -”

“I didn’t know him that well.”

She nods her head and tries not to look disappointed. Hal smiles. “But, I remember when he came to us.”

“With an army of robots?” Her smile is weak, but he returns it.

“No, that was later. After Century. First time was when the Reese boys found him. Naked, except for Kyle Reese’s coat, way I heard it - we didn’t know what that meant back then, of course.

“They brought him Below, and I gave him some food. He passed it on to a little boy when he thought I wasn’t looking, he was like that. You know, he made me a teacher again. He gave us light and power. Weapons. Food - medicine. All stuff you left for him to find, I’d guess. However it happened, it was a miracle. A real, honest to God miracle.

“When he was looking for people to come back and watch over you, he wanted anyone old enough to remember what the world was like. So they could blend in, not get distracted. I was the first one he asked. First one. And it was an honor. It’s been an honor.

“Now you go do what it is you got to do. You need help, you let me know - don’t think I’m much up to storming any gates anymore, but I still have friends.”

She leans over carefully and kisses his cheek. “Thank you, Hal.”

He pats her shoulder and whispers hoarsely. “Call me Henry.”

-o-

Jesse brings herself up from a slouch against the wall as Sarah lets the door swing behind her. “He’s Resistance?”

“Yeah. I think my John sent him.”

They walk to the truck in silence and then Sarah stops with the hand on the door, turns, says, “You don’t have to do this.”

Jesse stops just an inch too close, deliberately lowers her shades and stares Sarah in the eye until Sarah has to look away.

She lifts the corner of her mouth, “Want to go get a beer?”

Jesse seems to give it serious thought and then nods. “Could get two.”

“Why the hell not?” It’s eerie, this feeling of having no one to protect, no one to spend herself worrying over. Having her heart back in her body. Sarah thinks she almost likes it.

-o-

In the morning they park up half a mile up from DreiFirma and watch as the early shift comes in. Cars are searched, personnel are scanned and IDs are checked by two sets of eyes - the checkpoint is as thorough as a military base.

The guards wear civilian security uniforms, but they carry themselves like professional soldiers. So do some of the suits. Then there are the men and women who arrive with escorts: they don’t say military to Sarah, but they do say government.

A few people carriers roll in and out, Sarah guesses these are the scientists, maybe the other staff.

Could be something. She says, “We aren’t going in the front. But even places like that need support staff. Cleaners. Cooks.”

“Probably vet them like they were working at the White House.”

Sarah makes a non-committal sound. “They’ll come from a company. We get on the list, we get in.”

Jesse nods and lowers the map she’s been sketching out. “So how do we get on the list?”

“Same as anything else, we know the right people.”

-o-

The bar is packed out and between the music and the shrieking laughter the noise level is closing in on painful. Their target isn’t difficult to see and he’s exactly as Hal described him – up to and including the comb-over.

Morgan King, head of the support staff, is a neat man in a polyester suit with his tie at half-mast and a glass of whiskey sweating in his hand. Jesse looks him up and down with an expression of dismissive disdain, which tells Sarah she’ll get to be the one to go in and make nice.

She pulls her hair from its tie and leaves her leather jacket with Jesse. The wife-beater and jeans combination probably isn’t the best for giving an impression of a damsel in distress, but it will have to do.

She approaches from the side, leaning forward to make sure he sees her before she moves in fully. She smiles shyly and shouts a little to be heard, “Hi, Mr. King?”

He nods encouragingly and she goes on. “I’m Jeanette Beasley, Uncle Hal called you about me …”

“Jeanette, yeah! You know, he used to talk about you all the time. How is Old Hal? He didn’t sound so good …”

“Oh, well as can be expected.” She gives a brave little smile and manages not to slap away the hand that pats her. “When we heard how sick he was we had to come and make sure he was comfortable as he could be. But we can’t find any work and we’ll have to go on back to Nebraska if-“

“Slow down, slow down now.” King looks around. “We?”

“My sister and me.” Sarah nods over to where Jesse waits, attempting to look distressed. It’s probably just as well it’s dark. “Do you have any work for us, Mr. King? We’d be so grateful.” Sarah doesn’t look up between her lashes; she’s not going to assume the man is stupid.

King knocks back his whiskey and taps the bar for another. “You got any criminal record? Be honest with me, now.”

Sarah darts her eyes at Jesse and then looks back, as if embarrassed. “Nothing since we were kids. Stupid stuff.”

He nods as if this was expected; Sarah wonders what Hal told him. “You ever done cleaning work before?”

“Oh sure, both of us. Kitchen work too.”

King rubs the back of his neck and then sighs. “Okay, well, we’ll need to get you cleared and that’ll take a couple of weeks, but we can get you started in the non-secure areas: canteen and such. Pay’s not great, but it’s better than it might be – and you tell Hal we’re even.”

“We are so grateful, Mr. King. Thank you so much. God bless you.” She wonders if she’s overplaying it with the last, but he pats her again.

“You be outside the gate at seven-thirty tomorrow and we’ll get you both signed in.”

She murmurs her thanks again and then backs up and over to Jesse. “Let’s get out of here.”

“Were you actually crying?” Jesse raises a finger to the dampness on Sarah’s cheek and Sarah ducks back, bats her hand away.

“Stare into a bright light.” Or lose a son. Or lose a father. Or lose the world. “It’s easy.”

-o-

They show up at seven, Sarah wears glasses and keeps her hair loose. It’s not much, but she makes sure she keeps her head turned away from the cameras. She thinks – she hopes – that the company may know they’re coming, but it may not know when, or how. It’s a risk, but everything is now.

King gets them signed in with easy chatter that Sarah replies to absently; Jesse stays silent, even when King pats her a little too familiarly and stands a little too close.

When he’s gone and they’re standing at the edge of the kitchens, Jesse murmurs, “The machines can have him.”

“You can’t let a man die for patting you on the ass,” Sarah replies with a fast grin. She doesn’t know why her mood has lifted, but she’s going with it. Maybe it’s just enough to have a real goal at last.

They take it in turns to scout, one covering for the other. When she’s on cover, Sarah finds the mopping strangely therapeutic; she has the feeling that Jesse really doesn’t. At lunch they change into diner-like uniforms and it’s disorientating to be back there again.

When their shift ends ten hours later, they have a reasonable idea of the floor plan between them and the abiding wish never to work a shift there again.

Jesse sits on her bed and then falls back with a heartfelt groan and Sarah fights to hide her smile. “Can’t be worse than killer robots.”

She sits on her own bed and draws over a pad and pencil, mapping out the areas she’s found and the ones she suspects. When she’s done, she hands it over to Jesse, who does the same.

They sit shoulder to shoulder to study the final version; Sarah taps the paper. “You made it into a lab?”

Jesse shakes her head. “No, but I saw it. There’s an elevator back there, goes down right at the center of the building, like you said.”

“How did they access it?”

“Key card and an eye scan.”

”Then that’s how we go in.”

It’s pathetically easy to get ready; all they have is weapons now. There’s no need to dust down the place for prints, it’s not like prints will matter. They eat lightly; they drink more. They’re out of things to do not long after the sun goes down, and out of things to say before that.

Sarah lies on her bed and doesn’t try to sleep; she’s pretty sure Jesse’s doing the same. At some point she dozes though, because she’s not aware of Jesse moving until she opens her eyes and sees the woman standing over her.

She looks up at her and then inches back across the mattress until her back is to the wall; Jesse slips in beside her.

-o-

They rise at four, shower, dress and eat without speaking and close the door behind them at five. It’s a short drive to King’s house and it’s the work of a minute to break into his car. They stow the weapons bag under the spare tire; their car may be searched thoroughly, his probably won’t be.

At two, when they have their break, they leave together. Sarah lifts King’s car keys when she gives him a grateful hug and the assurance Hal is having a good day. They could just break in again, but the parking area is wide open and the cameras swing back and forth over it in a constant arc.

They bring out the bag and smile to the man at the service door on their way back in.

The coveralls and a cart full of cleaner bring them to the door of the lab with the elevator and then that’s it.

It’s time.

Jesse reaches under the cart and drags out the bag. Sarah counts to five and then she nods.

Jesse throws her a Beretta and pulls out her sawn off; she slings the bag across her back while Sarah takes a step back and kicks open the door to the lab. They move in fast, covering the roomful of scientists and a couple of guards before most of them have even turned around.

She yells at them to get down on the ground, behind her Jesse fires twice and the two guards fall. Sarah doesn’t take the time to see if they’re dead.

“You two!” She points to the two youngest looking men. “Pull that across the door.” She nods to a long freestanding workbench. They hesitate, but from fear rather than resistance. She repeats the order and this time, they run to obey.

A siren begins to wail in and out and the lights flicker from white to yellow.

Jesse is already dragging a smaller woman towards the elevator, pushing and shoving, keeping her off balance, stopping her from thinking. They need to get in there and they need to do it before the elevator is shut down.

Sarah doesn’t hear what Jesse says to the woman, but whatever it is has her eyes blown wide with terror. She enters her keycard with a shaking hand and trembles in front of the eye scanner.

For a moment Sarah’s concerned the reader will be thrown by the shaking, but a name flashes on the panel and the elevator opens.

Jesse pushes the woman in and then follows, Sarah backs up to them and keeps her gun on the room until the doors close. The elevator falls, and keeps falling. The woman squeezes herself so far into the corner her shoulders hunch, Sarah pulls Jesse away and speaks softly. “Daly, right? The scanner said Daly?”

The woman nods jerkily. “Kay. Kay Daly. Biochemistry. I’m not even from that lab. I came to see Zeke, I don’t even-”

“It’s okay.” Sarah smiles and receives a terrified version of a smile back. “We’re not going to hurt you, Kay. I promise. Believe it or not, we’re trying to keep you safe.”

Kay’s eyes travel disbelievingly to Jesse and then back. Sarah tries to look apologetic. “Can you tell me what’s down there?”

”You don’t know?” She seems stunned; Sarah doesn’t particularly blame her.

”She asked you what’s down there,” Jesse says quietly and Kay shrinks back again.

Sarah grits her teeth and nods pointedly from Jesse to the cattycorner of the elevator.

When Jesse’s leaning back against the corner, as far away as she can be, Kay says, “Servers. They have to be kept as cold as possible.”

It is actually getting colder the lower they go; when the elevator finally stops Sarah can see her breath in the air.

She pulls Kay with her to the side of the doors while Jesse takes the other side; it’s minimal cover, but it’s all they’ve got and there’s no convenient little hatchway for them to leave by.

The doors open, but without gun fire. Jesse risks a fast look and then ducks back. “Clear.”

Sarah pushes Kay back behind her and steps out into a corridor stretching west. It’s completely clear. She shoots into the control panel on the elevator and then wedges the door open with a piece of loose metal. Not that she thinks it will make much difference: it’s not like there’s only going to be one way down here.

She wants to believe they’ve just been that efficient, that fast, but she’s not that good a liar. She looks back. “What’s up there?”

“Central server hub, and base access. Guards.” Kay still looks too scared to lie, but honestly that’s not something Sarah’s going to bet on. From Jesse’s expression, she agrees.

Jesse swings the butt of the shotgun and the woman drops with blood welling from the gash on her head. Jesse doesn’t try to look repentant and Sarah doesn’t pretend to care.

The corridor is low-lit and white tiled. It curves back and forth; it’s impossible to see what’s coming from more than twenty feet, and the incline is just enough that Sarah’s knee begins to ache after a few minutes. No doors, no access points, no corridors branching away; just one long tunnel stretching on and on.

After five minutes, when they turn a curve and see the soldiers kneeling with their rifles raised, it’s very nearly a relief. They throw themselves back and the first volley of bullets punch past them.

Sarah pulls Jesse to her and digs into the bag on her back, comes out with a grenade. She pulls the pin, waits for three heartbeats and then throws it around the corner, ducking back to the feel of bullets passing too close.

The grenade skitters across the floor; she hears the men shout and the sound of it beginning to roll back down towards their position, and then the world is heat and light and darkness.

They don’t wait until their eyes have cleared; they run forward into the smoke-filled corridor firing. Some bullets come their way; she barely even flinches.

They keep running; the lights go from yellow to red.

A hundred feet on is an open door into a guard station. There’s rifles clipped to the wall – they take them – and boxes of ammo scattered haphazardly over the side counter. They take those too. Monitors show the corridor behind them – still smoke-filled and the one ahead – more men running down it.

Jesse opens the heavy door and throws another grenade, slams it back fast against the bullets. They slide down with their shoulders braced against the metal and hear a dulled roar before the door thumps back against them. The monitor goes to static and reinforced glass shatters over their heads.

Sarah yells the go over the ringing in her ears and hunches against the sporadic burst from a sprinkler system in distress.

Jesse opens the door again and Sarah dives through, but no gunfire meets her. The white tiles are washed over in red and they glisten in the light. It smells of blood and gore and waste; she’s kneeling in something wet and soft. Someone groans and she refuses to look closer.

They slip and slide through the security door beyond and into another elevator. The doors whisper shut and the box jerks, it takes a moment before Sarah realizes they’re accelerating vertically.

Jesse paces the five feet across and then turns, “If we get trapped in this, we’re screwed.”

Sarah figures she probably doesn’t have to point out they’re screwed anyway, she just settles back on her heels and tries to breathe normally. “We won’t.”

“You seen the future, now?” Jesse idly reloads her pistols, the shotgun. There’s a smear of blood on her cheek, but Sarah’s pretty sure it’s not hers.

“Either they knew we were coming and they let us get this far, which means they’re not going to end it here. Or, Weaver did something to this place before she left and they can’t track us properly, don’t know where we are, and can’t stop us.”

Jesse considers these options for a second and then says, “Or we’re trapped and we’re going to die in an elevator.”

Sarah nods and stands again; she staggers a little as the transport decelerates. “Yeah, or that.”

Jesse reseats the bag over her shoulders and then smirks. “Figures I trade one tin can for another.”

“Least we can’t drown,” Sarah grins.

The look Jesse levels at her is sardonic. “Yeah, I’d hate to drown.”

They crouch at the side of the doors again, which gives even less cover than the last elevator did, but no one’s shooting at them anyway.

“No way they missed this,” Jesse murmurs. She’s uneasy, Sarah is too; she reflects that there’s probably something very wrong when not being shot at is unsettling.

The cold is intense; the tiled walls glitter with ice and underfoot the ground is gritty. Sarah shivers as sweat cools too quickly and, in the unlikely event she lives through this, she knows her muscles will be making her pay in the morning.

“Come on,” she answers, just as quietly.

They can see the open mouth of another tunnel; this one is straight and they can see unmanned security doors at the end, not even fifty feet away. Sarah stops and backs up. “Give me the bag.”

Jesse complies and Sarah digs through the find the C4 charges. She sticks one in the transport elevator on radio detonation and the other on the inside wall of the tunnel as they pass it.

They won’t go off if the radio signal starts, only if it stops. She’s always liked a dead man’s switch.

When they reach them, the doors slide open almost silently; they stand at the threshold looking into the room.

It’s lined with banks of monitors and servers, flickering lights and cables as thick as Sarah’s arm. No scientists. No guards. In the center is an enclosed area, something glows within it but the cold mist inside makes it impossible to see more.

“Skynet?” Jesse asks uncertainly.

“Not exactly.” A man in a lab coat peers out from behind a shelving stack. Two guns swing his way and he disappears quickly. “Please don’t shoot!”

Sarah looks at Jesse, Jesse shrugs. Sarah shakes her head and calls out, “We aren’t going to shoot. What’s your name?”

“Matt Murch. I used to work at ZeiraCorp. When Catherine Weaver … left, I was … headhunted, I guess.” Murch looks out again and then slowly walks towards them, hands held up to his shoulders. He more or less looks like the pictures Sarah’s seen; balding, what hair remains closely shaven. Glasses perched on a thin nose.

There’s a distant boom; Sarah smiles. They tried to recall the transporter; took it right out of radio range.

Murch jumps at the noise and then lowers his arms a little. “They sent me to talk to you. Can we talk?”

“We can talk.” Sarah hesitates and then says, “Is there a kid here? Daniel?”

Murch shakes his head. “I don’t know. I don’t get out that much. Maybe? There are kids. I’ve seen kids.”

Jesse walks around him; Murch tries to follow her progress. When she’s in his blind spot, she asks, “Why isn’t anyone attacking us?”

Murch smiles nervously, darting a look at Sarah, who nods encouragingly. “Well, they would be. Except there’s a lot of really sensitive equipment in here no one wants blown up.”

Sarah frowns, because Murch is saying the words but his eyes jerk to the center of the room and then back to hers; an entirely different message. She’s just not sure what she’s supposed to do with it, if he even knows he’s sending a message at all.

She nods Jesse towards the central container and then looks back to Murch. “You said this isn’t the Skynet installation?”

“Yeah, sure, but, I mean -- net? There isn’t a Skynet installation, that’s the beauty of it. It suborns other systems when it needs them; it’s in or able to access most of the servers in the world. It’s – it’s really smart. It makes John Henry look like a child.” He considers for a moment and then says, “But if you want think of it like a web? You’re at the center of the web. And the bits at the side need that or they, you know …”

Sarah keeps her face expressionless; Murch misinterprets horror for disdain and deflates a little. “You never poked a hole in the middle of a web when you were a kid?”

Jesse finishes her circuit around the container and walks back over to Sarah’s side. She leans in close and whispers almost inaudibly into her ear, “There’s something moving in there.”

Sarah takes the shotgun from Jesse, hands her the rifle in return. She raises the barrel; Murch raises his hands fast and takes a step backwards. Sarah smiles and swings the barrel around until it’s unwaveringly pointed at the container. ”What’s in there?”

“Coolers. Just coolers.” Murch is sweating, despite the temperature.

“Try again.”

Murch swallows spasmodically and reaches out a hand as she takes a step closer to the glass. “Don’t!”

“Three.”

“Don’t do it, you don’t understand-“

“Two.”

“You won’t believe-“

“One.”

“Don’t.” Murch jumps in front of the gun and closes his eyes. Sarah relaxes the finger on the trigger.

She waits, he cracks open one eye and then the other. “It’s not coolers.”

“Really?” Jesse says sardonically.

Sarah lowers her gun completely and watches the blue glow in the container. “It’s energy, isn’t it?”

Murch frowns, but nods. “There are … areas of instability around the country. More and more of them. We tracked the first one back to the twenties, but there could be earlier. They create … pockets, I guess, you could call them. Most are completely harmless, there’s residual energy readings and – you know, it doesn’t matter.

“The point is, this one? Is the grand-daddy. It showed up in the eighties and it’s been getting bigger and less stable ever since; this whole complex was built to contain and study it. It’s what’s making it so cold.”

From the center of the container, a flicker of blue lightning crackles against the glass and then disperses.

Sarah walks closer, fascinated to see the time bubble contained. Latent. “You know what it is? Does Skynet know what it is?”

“No. We have theories, but …”

Sarah glances back at Jesse and lets her gaze stay on the glass. “What happens if you don’t figure out what it is? How to contain it? How long until …”

“It keeps growing. It’s went from the size of a golf ball to the size of a basketball in ten years, then in the nineties it doubled in size over night. Apparently, around the same time as ZeiraCorp got hit, it doubled its size another two times.” He laughs, stutters. “You do the math.”

Sarah does the math. “I know what it is.”

Murch stares at her, his mouth opens and closes it a few times and then he chokes, “Are you going to tell me?”

Sarah glances at Jesse again, she has no idea if she should tell him or not. What it would mean for the future, for better or for worse.

Jesse shrugs. Helpful.

Sarah says, “It’s been reacting to people traveling in time. From the future to here, from here to the future.”

Murch squints at her for a few seconds, waiting for the punch line. She doesn’t give him one and his expression becomes speculative. “That would – that would be –“ he mumbles on but the half-heard words mean nothing to Sarah.

When he turns away he doesn’t even seem to register their presence anymore, she gently reminds him with a tap on the shoulder. He jumps.

”Has anyone gone in there? Touched it?”

“Yeah, before it was closed off. They disappeared.”

Sarah nods. Of course they did.

Murch seems to have moved past the shock of discovery and onto the question of just how they know. His eyes widen. “Jesus, you’re from the future.”

“The past,” corrects Sarah. “She’s from the future.”

Jesse waves at Murch’s blank stare.

Sarah gently shakes Murch by the shoulder until he’s focusing on her again. “Listen to me. You have to stay here, and you have to work this out. The bubble can be controlled, and it can be contained. Somehow you do it, because in the future Skynet will use it to try and kill my son and me. My son will use it to … he’ll use it.

“I don’t know if I should be telling you to kill the research or make it work, but I’m trusting you.”

Murch gapes at her. “Trusting me?”

She leans close and whispers in to his ear, “To know for yourself.”

An explosion rocks them back and the short tunnel to the lab throws in dust and debris and screams. Sarah keeps her feet and helps Murch keep his, spins him around to face the other way. “What’s back there?”

“The mainframe. When they realised how cold it got in here, it made sense.”

Sarah grins and starts forward, arrested after a step by Jesse grabbing her shoulder and hauling her back around. “No.”

“What?” Sarah lifts her gun, but she’s not sure what she’ll do with it and Jesse has her hands half raised now.

She yells in Sarah’s face, over the noise behind them. “You heard what he said; it’s already in the system. You attack it, what do you think it’s going to do? Are you ready to bring down Judgment Day?”

Sarah pushes her away, but Jesse’s right. God damn her, she’s right.

“There’s-“ Murch looks between them. “There’s other ways to slow it down. It isn’t self-sufficient. Yet. There’s scientists and military, everyone here -- it takes a village to raise a child and all of that.”

Jesse nods rapidly, but Sarah shakes her head. “We are not killing all these people.”

“In about two minutes, they’re going to try and kill us and I will damn well be trying to kill them back.” Jesse snarls.

Sarah rounds on Murch, “What else are they building here? Endoskeletons? Synthetic skin, maybe? Processors?”

Murch jumps but nods quickly. “Yeah, they’re working on those. I don’t know where they got the technology, it’s years ahead of - oh.”

Sarah stares down at the floor and doesn’t see it. “We can destroy them, destroy the work – take those years back again. Make sure John isn’t walking into the machines as soon as he gets there.”

There’s a light touch on her shoulder and Sarah looks up; Jesse smiles. “Go. I’ll keep the door closed.”

Sarah studies her for a moment and then slips the bag from her shoulders and slings it over her own. She pulls Murch close and around, and puts her gun to the side of his head. He goes rigid and then relaxes and lets her push him towards the next door.

She reaches past him and opens it awkwardly, isn’t surprised to find herself staring down at a nest of rifle barrels. They won’t risk Murch. She hopes they won’t risk Murch. “Back up.”

“Ms Connor, we can talk about this.” A man steps forward, he could be Elias’ brother: skeletons still moving in the desert. He even has the same way of speaking, as if he’s relaying the words, not saying them. She squints; there’s a bug in his ear.

“Nothing to talk about. I said back up.”

She nudges Murch to get him moving and hopes he’ll lead her where they need to go; the longer the men think she’s just looking for an exit the better. She twists around so her back is to the wall and Murch is covering her almost completely.

There’s gunfire from the containment room; she ignores it.

“Please, Ms Connor,” Elias’ twin tries again.

Murch gives her a subtle nudge at the second door they reach, she kicks back to open it and then pulls him in and around, kicking it shut behind them.

It’s not a room, it’s a warehouse and she can barely see the end of it. There’s bench after bench of shining metal parts in the middle and lining the walls, more computers. It looks like a lot of the components have been laid down in a hurry; this room has been cleared. That’s useful.

Sarah lets Murch go; he moves quickly to block the door while she digs the remaining C4 packs from the bag and sets the charges. “When we go out, I’m going to push you into them and run. You go down as quickly as you can and you stay down until the shooting stops, understand?”

“Someone will have to make sure they go off,” Murch starts, but she hears Miles Dyson all over again.

“No,” she says more harshly than she means. Tries softer. “No. I’ll set them off as soon as I’m back in the container room, they won’t have time. That means you have to run as soon as you can. Stay alive. No matter what.”

He nods unhappily and she pats his shoulder.

-o-

A bullet stings her hip and staggers her forward as she runs, her back feels like a free target zone, but nothing else hits. From the shouting and swearing, she guesses Murch is running what interference he can.

When she throws herself around the corner, she can only pray he’s made it far enough away. She rolls, boots the door shut behind her and hits the detonator.

The walls shake and men scream, but she barely hears them because when she rolls to her feet she sees the containment area; the doorway is mostly caved in. Four soldiers who managed to make it through lie on the floor and Jesse lies over one of them, hand on her knife, knife in the man’s neck; neither is moving.

Sarah touches her arm.

Chapter Text

“Jesse?” John tries to follow what’s happening, but the images flicker too fast and then they’re gone completely. He turns on Murch, “Bring them back.”

“We were lucky to get that close; it can be months either way.” Murch shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”

Kyle steps up beside them, still staring at the place where Sarah was. “What were they doing?”

“A lot of damage.” Murch’s faint smile becomes almost fond. “They destroyed the robotics division; most of the prototypes were in there, it set them back years. I don’t know what happened to them. Afterwards, I mean. I wasn’t there. I like to think they made it out. It … helped.”

“They’re in the bubble right there,” John points. “You can help them make it out.”

“It doesn’t work like that, you can’t just walk in and out. There are calculations and they have to be exact, and the machinery hasn’t been tested, and there’s still trials to run, and -”

John laughs under his breath and cuts the ramble off. “You’ve thought about it.”

“Of course I did.” Murch looks almost wounded. “But you have to understand that this isn’t a time machine. This is the entity, this is where they get their juice. This is time. It doesn’t belong here; it’s four dimensions in a 3-D world. The only way we found to contain it was to siphon the energy out and – it doesn’t matter. I can’t do it.”

“You can try,” says Kyle, and shrugs when John looks at him.

“It could cause a catastrophic cascade – it could destroy everything.”

John laughs again, louder this time, and Murch looks at him in confusion. “It doesn’t,” John says slowly. “We’re here.”

Murch still looks doubtful, and there’s at least one John Connor who turned away; John knows it because he knows he should.

He should finish setting the charges and take Crystal Peak from the machines.

He should go back to Kansas bunker with new prizes and an army made of metal, and the promise they can fix this.

He should send Kyle back to his mother, and probably others back before that.

He should be bringing Skynet to its end.

He says, “Do it, Murch. Please.”

“Twenty minutes,” says Kate quietly.

Murch worries at his lip and then turns his head. “Dye,” he shouts, “Begin the start up sequence.”

-o-

Murch and Dye go from switchboard to switchboard, muttering to themselves in words John can’t even parse as having meaning. Dye nods to John almost shyly the first time he runs past, John thinks he should know him but he can’t quite make the connect.

Kate says, “Fifteen minutes.”

Murch runs back to them, panting a little. “We need five more while it calibrates itself. This really isn’t -- we weren’t planning on this.”

John turns and watches Weaver as she walks slow circles around the bubble itself. The intensity of her expression is more frightening to John than anything else she can do; death is quick and he doubts the same can be said for whatever she’s planning.

Murch’s eyes flick to the side and then back, making sure Weaver is too far away to hear him when he whispers, “Your mom, she said she trusted me to make the right choice. With the time machines, I mean. We had to build them, they’re kind of a side product of the siphoning, but I made sure nothing inorganic can go through. I guess they figured a way around it,” he finishes in a rush.

“You did that?” John stares at him. “Thank you,” he says, and he’s never meant it more.

Murch looks away, he seems almost embarrassed. “There wasn’t anything I could do to stop Skynet, but when it started I was ready. Closed down the systems completely -- even the filters, it got pretty close in here. Everyone wanted to get out, but by the time they could open the doors, Bishop was gone. Only thing we could do was sit. Wait it out. We sent out messages sometimes, so the other bunkers didn’t come looking.”

”Then Bakov died and Jackson wouldn’t listen to me, and then Reynolds … they killed-“ He swallows and pulls himself together. “The machines kept me and Dye alive to work on the bubble. They can measure time down to the smallest pieces, but they can’t manipulate it. They need us for that.”

John feels the movement of the metal on his chest and swears; Weaver heard everything. It slithers down his skin and to the floor. Silver falls in rivulets from them all and pool in a single stream back to Weaver. “All debts are paid.” She turns and begins walking up the stairs.

Derek growls and begins to swing his rifle around; John catches the barrel in his hands and shoves it back. “Let it go.”

“You’re protecting it?”

“I’m protecting you, or did you guys find a volcano back there? We have a chance against 800s, we can’t even fight her.”

From the top of the gantry, Weaver turns and waves down with a politely impersonal smile before she collapses into her liquid form and spirals up into the cavernous ceiling.

They have minutes before the machines detect them, probably not even that. The temperature is dropping rapidly and John can see the energy level readings beginning to spike.

He spins to Derek. “Go, get out of here. All of you.”

No one moves.

“Go,” he yells again, over the sound of the computers beginning to whine.

Derek shakes his head and then pushes Kate and Kyle ahead of him. “We aren’t leaving you here, Connor. We’ll keep the door closed.”

They make a run for the stairs and John doesn’t have time to yell at them for being idiots, because Cameron’s hand touches his arm, “John.”

He slips out of her hold and paces in front of the spot where Murch estimates their bubble will grow. “What? Am I screwing up the future? You know what, I don’t care.”

She frowns pensively and then shakes her head. “This is new.”

That cuts through the double clamor of panic and fear, he stops in front of her. “You don’t know what happens next?”

“No. I want to know what happens next.” She smiles. “Be careful, John.”

Murch yells, “Once this starts, I can’t stop it. Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Do it,” Derek and John yell at the same time, and John has no idea what’s happening above until there’s an explosion so bright it lights the shadows of the ceiling above them.

Murch throws a switch, the lightning flickers and dies with the fire above. “If it happens, it will happen quickly. Please, move away.”

John backs away and Murch slams down on another button; the blue bubble collapses completely in on itself with nothing in its center.

There’s a push in the small of his back and he stumbles forward, tries to turn but he can’t keep his balance. Cameron stands over him, her eyes blazing a clear, bright blue. A silver stream drops from her hand and disappears into the shadows so quickly he doesn’t know if he saw it or not.

He tries to dive back, but it’s too late – the bubble rises and they’re caught.

The familiar wrench takes him down into the darkness. When he opens his eyes again, the disorientation of thoughts going a thousand different directions begins to fade, but the pain of a body that’s just done the same grows.

The bubble flares and collapses, and he’s lying naked in a glass box. There’s smoke in the air beyond and he can see streaks of blood on the surface. Cameron moves.

Cameron.

He brings himself up fast, not sure what he’s actually planning to do if she’s turns on him, but she only stands. She runs her sensors over the container and then punches the glass once; it cracks. Twice, it shatters.

A figure beyond it is aiming a gun and he holds his hands up. The gun lowers. “John?”

“John!” His mother reaches for him and he throws himself back. He wants to tell her he didn’t mean to, but all he can whisper is “No,” because he's left them to die.

Sarah’s mouth thins and she turns to begin working the clothes off the soldier at her side. Boots, pants, shirt. She throws them at John and he struggles into them automatically.

Here and now. He can do here and now. “Jesse?”

“Alive. Where -- what happened to the -- it?”

John stares blankly and then looks back. He gets it now; they’re where the entity was, not where the bubble started. It’s gone. If it’s gone – they stare at each other and tentatively, they smile.

Sarah’s smile fades first, “Can the Tin Miss get us out of here?”

Cameron finishes pulling on her own boots and looks around; she nods. “Follow. Stay low.”

Like they need telling. They sling Jesse between them and stagger into a half run behind Cameron as she wades through the soldiers on the other side of Jesse’s blockade.

There’s no place like home.

-o-

Home is a motel room with blood on the sheets and walls; it’s his mother holding him so tight it’s painful and leaving red handprints on his shirt when she lets go.

It’s a figure thrashing on the bed and trying not to scream; it’s Cameron flipping to the music station to cover the noise anyway.

Home is wishing Kate were there and remembering Charley with a guilty stab.

It’s touching the scar on his shoulder to know what’s real.

-o-

When Jesse’s passed out and Cameron has closed the door behind her, Sarah sits on the bed next to John. Her hand reaches out almost tentatively and he takes it, relieved, because that’s something he can do. There’s still blood under their nails.

“Jeanette, huh?”

She smiles and then grins, he’s surprised to see a trace of embarrassment there. “Yeah, Jeanette.” The smile fades. “You didn’t mean to come back, did you?”

“No.” His voice sounds hoarse; he’s not used to the air here anymore. “I was trying to bring you to me. I thought you were going to die and … I shouldn’t have done it. We could have taken down Skynet. We could have done it. I’m sorry.”

Her hand reaches around him and pulls until his head is on her shoulder. He doesn’t cry; it’s long past that.

“You have nothing to be sorry about, John Connor.”

He watches Jesse shift under the covers; blood is still sluggishly staining the bandages and they’ll have to be changed soon. When Cameron gets back with the supplies that are so pathetically easy to find here.

“The time … thing here. Murch said it was unstable. But when you came back, it just disappeared,” Sarah broaches carefully.

John nods against her shoulder. “He got it stable in the future, but it’s a constant so maybe it’s gone there too. If it’s gone, maybe that’s it. Is that it?”

Sarah strokes his hair back and says nothing at all.