"The future's what you make it," John Connor told her once, five feet and five timelines (ten, twenty, fifty, she has them all, a directory of all the times the world will end) away. She's not sure anymore; time is a curving line with bright points that spread across so many futures, but this place is the one they always come back to. A room in barracks a thousand feet below the surface of the earth, John Conner five feet away, and she shouldn't remember anymore.
Neither of them should, but they do; he remembers his past in plural, more than any human should carry. He wakes in the morning with their names on his lips, running syllables together like liquid; Catherine-Lydia-Carol-Anne-Michelle-Marissa-Angela-Janet mixed inexorably in his head, memorials of what-was-once and what-wasn't-quite and what-is-now that he refuses to forget. He looks for friends who have never been born, friends that died days, weeks, years before this day, blinks in surprise at the people who respond to his call when they aren't who they were before.
She wonders how he keeps them straight; human brains are such fragile things, organic matter that's so easily damaged, electrical impulses that connect points of data, organize sensory input, record the past in uncertain detail that he remembers so he can change it.
She folds her hands in her lap; fifteen, he tells her, sixteen, and she learns the life of a girl she'd never met (he's never told her who, she's never asked), becoming her, this pretty-smart human female ("I do not understand," she told him when he grinned at her. "What is a babe?") who is supposed to help him change the world.
He shaped her, but something (someone) else shaped her too, this girl (who, she never asked, she should have asked, why would she have asked?) he knows, knew, once knew, will know, maybe here and now, maybe sometime else. He watched her while he typed, tweaking her this way and that until his eyes went distant and strangely soft.
"Who am I?" she asks. She isn't sure what it means; identity is for humans, their need to be something unlike what others already are. There's an edge to her voice that she's never heard; her programming processes it and finds no reference. He hadn't programmed her to know.
He leans back, arms folded over his stomach, seeping satisfaction like a scent. "That, you'll have to figure out for yourself." Bloodshot eyes meet hers, filled with something she can't name. "Good hunting, Cameron," he tells her, and she blinks and feels it settle over her, into her, like a mark her kind could see shining out of her skin, making her something new.
She still doesn't understand what he meant.
The first time, she's too late; she found their bodies spread across a warehouse in Colorado, blood soaking into her shoes as she searches the silent building, recording the past for the future that has changed.
Her programming doesn't covered failure.
"No," she whispers, and "Not yet," and "John"; she kneels in a warm puddle and pulls his head into her lap, touches features twenty years too young. "Not this one."
The second time, she's too early; the third, the world ended too soon. She walks through nuclear fallout that pits her skin, searching for him through bunkers buried in solid lead until her system forces her to leave. The fourth, he was never born; Sarah Connor's grave is lost beneath a nuclear winter where nothing had survived.
She wonders where the other terminators are, then wonders why she doesn't care.
Once, it's a girl.
"John," she says when the girl looks up, needle dropping from one shaking hand, black-lined, bloodshot eyes hazy and inhumanly blank, so like John that she reaches for her without thinking. "John."
"Sarah," the girl says, limp meat in Cameron's hands, head rolling back as her eyes flutter closed. "My dad was John." She laughs a little brokenly, hands plucking weakly at Cameron's sleeve. "Bugfuck crazy. Killed himself."
Cameron thinks of the world and John Connor; she thinks of the futures she's walked and the one she has yet to search, and this one that's encased in flesh so fragile that Cameron could destroy it in the blink of an eye. There's nothing of John in her face, her voice, but she carries her heritage in her body like a promise, so bright Cameron can feel it like the heat of her skin.
This isn't the right one, but it's a right one.
"The future is what you make of it," John Connor whispers in her mind, and she presses her lips to the girl's ear and says, "Listen to me. They lied. He wasn't crazy. You are going to save the world."
She still wonders what her future was. She hopes it was a good one.
Twenty, twenty-five, she carried the memories encased in data solids; she can relive every John she lost and every John she found: too old and too jaded to listen; too young and lost before he was found; one locked up behind stone walls screaming out the end of the world, mind long burned away; one stretched her on a bed and laughed when she told him what he was, used his hands on her body like he would a woman's, and she was too surprised to stop him.
He whispered, "You're crazy. I like crazy," and "You remind me of my mother" and "I don’t care anymore."
She broke his neck while he slept; it was kinder than letting him see dawn break. She watched the world end from his window before she left.
They blur for John Connor, all these will-not-be's he carries, softening the worlds his memories have lived. She wishes sometimes, watching him sleep, whispering those names, that she knew a way for him to forget.
Catherine-Lydia-Carol-Anne-Michelle-Marissa-Angela-Janet-Sarah-Elizabeth-Mary but not Cameron, never Cameron, this label that he's attached to her, this name that's crawled beneath programming that's older and younger than their world.
She still doesn’t know what it means, but she thinks he wants her to find out.
John Connor would say, it's always the last place you look. He also laughed when he said it; she supposed it must be humor and left it at that.
But it is, and she sits awake on a small motel chair, legs drawn to her chest (teenage girl, John Connor said, tilting his head as he watched her move, they sit like that. Trust me. And she did), hair pulled back, splitting her attention between regeneration and John, sleeping only feet away.
She's never been tired, not as John Connor explained it; when her levels drop below minimum functionality, she shuts off, and there's nothing like he described dreams should be, random images pulled from her consciousness to create imaginary timelines of never-is and not-real. She wonders, though, watching John snore into his pillow, drooling into dingy sheets, what it must be like, to live in mind-worlds that have never existed, if they carry those in their heads like she does the timelines she's walked.
He's young and afraid (John Conner was afraid, she wants to tell him. He survived a nuclear holocaust, led a resistance, and fought a war, and he was always afraid), but he's John Connor like the others never quite were. She thinks of how he shaped her name when they met (here, in this time, this place), how it was unfamiliar on his tongue, a name he'd never heard, a girl he hadn't met, might meet, will meet. She's his first Cameron, the name he'll give her decades from this day, before he sends her to help him change the world.
Cameron, she thinks, and closes her eyes, and wonders if she'll ever meet her.