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Across These Days Like Deserts

Chapter Text

On August 29 1997, the world ended right on schedule. It was a Friday. Later, John Connor would remember this detail like all the other survivors because it was the last time anyone on the planet gave a fuck about what weekday it was.

At the time, John did not care about the weekday (the last one), or what time it was (seven sixteen in the evening), or what country he was in (Argentina). All he cared about that very moment, as the bombs dropped, was his mother's screams, and then his mother's silence. He barely heard, but would always remember her last words for him, useful at the beginning and important at the end (Never stop frighting, you will win, you know it. Never forget that I love you.) and then her final word which was not for him, probably, and scattered away like her ashes moments later when the next shock wave hit and made her part of the dust they would all breathe in for years to come.

After the fact, for a long time, he only felt numb. There was a distant knowledge in the back of his mind that he had to go, that he wasn't safe, wasn't useful here; that he was a long way from where he needed to be. But what was the point, if he was also a very long way from who he needed to be? The world depended on him to save it – the entire world – and he was just a kid who, until but moments ago, had thought that his mother was somehow able to bend reality and save the world all on her own.

But the one meant to save the world was him. He had to save it, had to be the great, bright leader of mankind just like his mother had trained him to be. John knew he he had to fill that role, but he couldn't. He had been raised with the knowledge, grown up preparing, but now that it had become real, the mere idea was crushing. He was no hero and no savior. He couldn't be, could save and give hope to no one. He was twelve years old, and he was crying, and he wanted his mom.

It was a long time before he moved again, and when he did, the wold was dark, the sky black in a way he had never seen before. He could see because the ground was on fire.

His mother had taken him up into the hills, away from the city, and it had saved him, if not her. She had saved him, and deep inside the only part of him still capable of feeling was the part clinging to the belief that she had done it not just because he was supposed to be the savior of mankind but also because he was her son. ( Never forget that I love you.) He looked down onto the dying city where a distant skyscraper was just now collapsing into the sea of dust and fire and wondered if this was what his mom had seen in her nightmares every night for as long as he could remember.

Ashes began to fall, like snow. It brought up another memory, and with it came the despair that was only slowly gnawing its way through the blanket of numbness and loss. Kyle Reese, the man from the future who had told John's mother about the war and John's role in it, had spoken of the nuclear winter that followed the initial attack, how those who survived the bombings froze to death, and those who didn't freeze died of starvation. John was looking down onto the carcas of a world that hadn't realized yet that it was already gone.

At some point between the first sighting of missiles on his mother's radar and the moment the second shock wave turned her and their surroundings into dust, John had missed his world's last sunset.

Somewhere down in that inferno were survivors. In the surrounding villages, too. As much as he felt like it, John knew he wasn't the only person left in the world. The number of nukes to rain down onto Earth was finite, and the city, this area hadn't been important enough to warrant more than one. John pushed away all thoughts of the rest of the world where it looked just like this or worse. Everywhere. John pushed the thoughts away and thought of the people around him, somewhere in this darkness of smoke and dust. Shocked, terrified, lost, and ignorant of the fact that the worst was yet to come. Who didn't know about the machines, could only wonder what they had done to bring this upon them. Who stood among the flames and didn't know that all too soon, it would grow cold.

Who were calling for help and had no way of knowing that help would never come.

It was too much to take in. John only now got a glimpse of the despair that had overwhelmed his mother the moment it became clear, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that all their increasingly desperate attempts to prevent the death of billions had failed. Somehow, John had never really been able to believe that this would really happen. It had been unfathomable.

Cold, starvation – and eventually the machines that would work hard and methodically to get rid of the leftovers of mankind. Going so far as to turn able-bodied humans into their slaves to help with their own extinction. The fate that awaited the people of Earth was so bleak and terrible that even now, John's mind refused to picture it, tried to hide behind a wall of paralyzing despair. He fought it down, forced himself to focus on something smaller, something his mind could handle. Things that were important right here and now. The people in that valley who were still alive needed to know what was going on so they would know to prepare for the cold, dark years that were to come and stocked up on ammo. He had to share what knowledge and what training he had, so that maybe some of them had a chance. Slowly, haltingly, John made his way down the scorched hill towards the nearest village.

He vaguely remembered running past trees on the way up to the shelter. Those that still stood were burned, what few leaves remained were covered in ash, all color gone. That was what this world was now, what it had not been not a mere hour ago: Colorless, ruined. It hit John that the children born after this day might never see a healthy tree, a bird flying by, the sun. They might never know what it meant not to be hungry, or cold, and they might never know what it meant to feel safe.

It hit him, suddenly, that some ten years down the line, this was the world his father would be born into.

Taught knowledge and logic had not prepared him for this. Until today, until an hour ago, the future Reese had described to John's mother had been a different planet to John, something that might just as well have been a different universe. He had never been able to reconcile it with the world he'd grown up in (Past tense – he was no longer growing up, couldn't allow himself to be. As of this moment he had to be grown up.), never been able to imagine that one day this world would turn into that world. Now it had. And John was all alone in it. Later he would come to realize that so was everyone else.

Many things would hit him in the days and weeks to come. The loss of everything he had known was so fundamental that he couldn't take it in at once. Things so big he never even realized they were there, small things that he had taken for granted. His mother had told him never to do that but he he had, anyway, inevitably. Most of all because he had taken for granted that his mother was invincible and would never allow the disaster she had trained him for to happen.

Most of all, he had taken for granted that his mother would always be with him.

This loss, too, was something that would hit him in waves. Stumbling down the hill towards the village, mostly intact but on fire, John already knew this. The knowledge would not help him brace himself against the crushing grief when it came.

Right now, as he heard the first voices calling for help, he pushed all those thoughts aside, buried them deep, and ran towards the flames.

 

-

 

Katherine Brewster had been in Texas when the world ended, visiting her father who had been stationed there since June, and this was what saved her life. A bunker was nearby, close enough to reach it before the bombs hit. It saved her father and her, but not her mother and little brother, who had been out shopping at the time. For days there had been no certainty about their fate because the survivors were stuck below the ground when all Kate wanted to do was claw her way to the surface and find Mom and Charlie. When they finally were allowed to go up and saw the devastation with their own eyes, they still had no certainty, but also no hope.

What had destroyed the city had also destroyed any remains of her family's bodies. With no evidence, Kate needed months to accept that they were gone. When she finally did, she stopped talking. For a while she stopped everything.

The world was in ruins and Mom was gone, her baby brother was gone, and there was no hope of this ever, ever going away.

Her father was gentle with her when he had the time to be anything at all. For a while Kate hated him for being able to function after his wife and son had died. Then she hated herself for the opposite. In the end she pulled herself together, because this wasn't going away but everyone was still doing their best, applying what skills they had to this new situation, and Kate wasn't helping. If she wanted to live in this new order – and she still wasn't certain that she did – she had to start pulling her own weight. If only to make life a little less difficult for everyone else.

For a while, when she shut herself in, Kate had felt like she, her father, and the other military men and women were the only people left in the world. The moment she left the room she shared with her dad she found that this was not the case. There were others, filling the unoccupied parts of the bunker in increasing numbers. Others, who were scared, confused, grief-stricken like she was, lost, alone, angry and hopeless. There was a lot of talk flying around, of who'd done this, what should be done in reconciliation once the government had pulled its shit together. Talk of lost parents, children and homes. There was not a single positive emotion to be found.

By the time Kate walked among them, talk had started of sickness and how the food rations were getting smaller and smaller. A few days later, talk started about how anyone arriving at their gates now should be turned away.

A week later, anyone arriving at their gate was.

Her father justified the decision to her when she raged against it, but she could tell that he didn't love it either, and that was what kept her from hating him again. Not much, anyway. He didn't like it. But he also didn't fight it, and his reasoning sounded so logical. So cold. She hated that it made sense. There simply was no way for this bunker and it's meager supplies, meant for just a chosen few, to sustain any more people. They were already straining to sustain the ones already inside.

She hated that she thought he was right when the fights started to break out among the survivors inside. Everyone had always taught her that humans were meant to live in communities and needed each other to survive, but all notions of community, it seemed, went out of the window the moment there was not enough for everyone. Kate stayed away from the others once it started. She noted that her own food rations were getting smaller and vowed never to complain.

Those initiating fights, those caught stealing were throw out by the soldiers. The soldiers always carried weapons always moved in groups. There was an incident once, that Kate heard about later. Hungry people attacked a few soldiers and tried to take their weapons. Some were killed. It was ugly and it made everything even worse.

Opening the gates to remove those who endangered others was dangerous, too, but not as much as initially feared. The people outside did not pose much of a threat because there weren't a lot of them. New arrivals stopped coming. Eventually, Kate realized that the ones inside and those few outside were all there were left.

She finally worked up the courage to ask her dad, when she could. He usually disappeared, for days on end, in the control center of the bunker that she had only been allowed into the day everything went away and had not been able to work up an interest for in the weeks that followed. Now she started banging doors, arguing with guards that would not let her through. Her father did not appear to order them to let her in, but he came out to tell her that she was to go back to their room and he would come as soon as he could, Which turned out to be two days later.

Kate did not wait in their room staring at the walls all that time. This phase was over and there was no going back to it. But there also was no going to her dad who had no time for her, and no going to the camp inside the bunker with all the lost people who were frightening in their desperation. She went to the kitchen instead, to see for herself how badly diminished their stock on food was. But no one would tell her. They dismissed her questions or made up platitudes that were supposed to sound comforting but made her understand that they were screwed. “Why don't we get more food from outside?” she asked the female solider guarding the stock room, who was willing to talk to her after Kate tricked her into believing she knew exactly what was going on. “There has to be something left somewhere.”

“That is very likely. We did send out teams to restock supplies. They must be back very soon.”

Supplies were short not only since yesterday. They must have tried to restock days, if not weeks before. So what Kate heard now was that they had send out teams to get food and they had not returned.

It was one more thing she would ask her father about. Before she got the chance to do that, her way led her to the medical facilities of the bunker and for the first time she got a look at those who did not have the luck to escape this bombs mostly unscratched or die instantly.

For a while Kate froze, simply staring at the scene before her: For or five tired looking men and women running around between a few beds and a lot of improvised cots containing people who bled, sported burns, were missing limps. There were hurried voices and commands but mostly there were subdued moans and muffled crying, as if the suffering didn't want to disturb the dying with the verbalization of their distress. The stagnant air smelled of chemicals, blood, human waste, and more than anything of burned flesh.

When she remembered how to move, Kate fled. Ran to the isolated sanctuary that was her room and hid her face in her pillow. For a long time, she cried. Her father didn't come.

She didn't sleep that night, the scene in medical playing over and over in her mind. All the injured, all the sick. How hopeless the few helpers had seemed in the face of so much human misery. The silence inside the room that was small but was all hers no longer felt like a blessing. It felt like an accusation.

The next morning she went back to medical and offered to help. No one turned her away because she was young. Later that day, she held a dying man's hand and then helped carry him to the chamber where the bodies were kept until someone had time to taken them to the surface.

She worked all day and until deep into the night. Somewhere in between she got hungry – so hungry, eventually, that she felt sick, and when she was given her ration for the day she ate it, for the first time, with appreciation, but also with dread.

When she finally returned to her room that night, her father was waiting for her. He was asleep on his bed, but the uniform he was still wearing and the uncomfortable position told her that he had been trying to stay awake for her. Kate didn't feel sorry for making him wait, as he had made her wait much more than that. She even felt grim satisfaction for a moment, but then she identified the emotion as childish, and she couldn't be a child any longer.

She'd had a classmate once, years ago, who had been weirdly convinced that the world would end when they were thirteen. Kate had laughed about him then, but now she wished she had listened to him and appreciated her childhood while she could still afford to have one.

She wondered if the boy had survived, and if so, if he felt vindicated by the death of millions.

(What an odd coincidence, she thought, that he'd actually been right.)

Her father stirred when she closed the door. He was awake in seconds, a skill she had always admired. Kate was bone tired, but he looked worse. He'd probably not slept in all the days she hadn't seen him.

“Dad,” she greeted him. Her throat felt raw and painful because she had spend the entire day in medical holding back tears.

“Katie,” he said. “There you are.”

“Yeah. I was helping out some. It's not like you gave me a specific time.”

“I know. I'm sorry. Things are busy.”

“I understand.” For the first time in her life she really did.

“I heard you were helping in medical.”

Kate shrugged, suddenly self-conscious. “They seemed to need some help.”

“They do.” He wrapped an arm around her and pulled her closer. “I'm proud of you.”

Kate nodded wordlessly. The simple, familiar human contact seemed to break something inside her and suddenly she was too exhausted not to be heartbroken over the things she'd seen today, and would see tomorrow and maybe every day for the rest of her life. Her dad held her wordlessly and stroked her hair while she sobbed into his shoulder.

“Dad,” she finally said, hoarsely, after the tears stopped coming. “What's going on? Tell me the truth. Where is everyone? It's been months and we haven't heard anything. From no one.” She looked at him in the dim light, silently begging him not to lie to her, but also to say a truth she wanted to hear. “Please tell me we're not the only ones left.”

“We're not.” Dad's hand came to rest on her shoulder. He looked very serious. “There are others. We've had contact with other bunkers, other bases, all over the world. But, Katie...” He hesitated for a moment, then came to a decision. “The Unites States, as you knew them, are gone. There is no government anymore. Any attempt to restructure the military has been in vain due to there not being enough military left to fill the giant gaps in geographical distance. It's all scattered.”

Kate's eyes filled with tears again, even though she had suspected something like this. “So there's no help coming,” she asked. “Nowhere to go to? We're stuck here forever?”

“Not forever. We'll move out eventually, try to meet with other survivors and go from there. We will have to.”

“Because we're running out of food.”

“Among other things.” Dad looked at her full of regret, as if he hated the fact that she knew this more than he hated the circumstances.

“You send out teams to get more,” she pointed out. He seemed surprised that had this information, didn't reply at once. “They didn't come back,” she added.

“No, they didn't. We will send out more, soon. Better armed. They may have fallen victim to an ambush, or falling structures.”

“Or the ones who bombed us,” Kate pointed out.

Again her father hesitated in this way that made her feel like there were still horrors she could not fathom. “No, Katie. I don't think so.”

“You know who it was?” She was very awake all of a sudden. So far, there had been speculation, but no one ever admitted to knowing anything for certain. “Was it the Russians?” It was the only thing she could think of, even though the cold war had ended years ago.

“Yes,” Dad finally said. He sounded defeated. “The missiles were fired from Russia. But, no, they're not out there.”

“How can you know? If they want to take out everyone-”

“They're gone, Kate.”

The word barely registered. It didn't make sense. “Gone? The Russians?”

Russia is gone. The same way the States are gone. We... had contact with one of their bases, but it's been lost. There's only silence there. It's like here for them, or worse.”

'How can it be worse?' Kate wondered. “Who did that?”she finally asked. “Did we?” Wasn't this what everyone had always been afraid of? That one country would fire atomic missiles at the other and then the other would fire back in a last act of defiance, taking the enemy with them? Wasn't that what had kept the fragile balance for so long? How could the Russians have been so stupid?

Hot tears were in her eyes again, and she barely heard her father's voice when he told her, “We fired first.”

 

-

 

It took half an hour for Kate's father to explain, but explain he did. Something about a computer program that was put in charge of national defense and then went wrong. Attacked Russia, Russia fired back. But it wasn't just Russia that was attacked.

Something Dad had said earlier made its way to the surface of Kate's mind. “All over the world,” she repeated. “You said all over the world.”

Now, he didn't say anything. He didn't need to.

“But how? Why? We did this?” Kate was beginning to sound hysterical. She felt hysterical, like only hysteria could keep her from realizing the full impact of this information. Suddenly, the guilt was crushing. Kate was no idiot, she knew that she had not given this order nor executed it and was as guilty as any thirteen-year-old in Russia, or Africa, or Japan. But she had spend days and nights hating whoever had done this to the world and it was them.

“The program. Some system called Skynet. It aced on its own. I think they tried to stop it. There's not a lot of intel on that. Most people who had anything to do with it are dead.”

“Did that computer kill them?”

“Defense system,” her dad corrected her. “I don't know. It seems likely.”

“Is it still around?” There was an enemy out there. An enemy that wanted them all gone for no reason. But surely it was all out of missiles now, was it? A computer program could fire missiles, but it couldn't build them.

Could it?

“It must be gone, destroyed in the attacks,” her father said, for the first time sounding soothing. Like he was saying something good among all this horrible crap. “There aren't many computers left, and even if its main frame still exists, there's nothing it can do anymore. It was created to control our defense network, and there's nothing left to control. And besides, you need to understand that it wasn't acting out of hatred or anything like that. It has no agenda to destroy us. It's just a computer program that malfunctioned, not a sentient being.”

“But it did destroy us,” Kate whispered. It did. Everything was gone, and she just couldn't take it in.

She'd always wanted to go to Italy. Years ago, her best friend from school had moved to France.

“We're still here, aren't we?” Dad spoke with gentleness and Kate cried harder because they were, but Mom and Charlie were not. (Charlie was five. He loved soccer even though no one else in the entire family was interested in the sport and no one knew where he had picked that up. It wasn't popular where they lived. It didn't make sense. But he wanted to be a professional when he grew up so Mom took him to training every week.) “There are still people around. We'll find each other and rebuilt. It's not over, Katie. The radiation levels on the surface aren't so bad. We'll leave soon, find others who need help and guidance in this mess. See what we can salvage. It's not the future I wanted for you but it's not over.”

“What about the rest of the world?” Kate asked, wanting hope but unable to imagine that anyone would stand a chance without Robert Brewster there to help them. Childish thoughts. She burrowed deeper into his arms.

“They seem to manage. There's a town in Argentina that seems to be way ahead of everyone. They organized their water supply, stocked up on food, burrowed in the earth to hide from the cold. And apparently stocked up on weapons and ammo, for whatever reason. Their leader seems to be a bit of a paranoid bastard who seems to think that something out there is still out to get them, but it keeps them organized, so I don't care. According to the military convoy that ended up in their camp, they are already swarming out, warning other survivors how to handle the situation. And to keep weapons ready to fend off evil killer robots...” he added as an afterthought, and Kate snorted almost against her will, making an effort to appreciate his attempt to cheer her up.

“It's true, really,” he assured her, but she heard the hint of amusement in his voice. “Killer robots. The guy must be a veteran who's seen one too many bombs drop, but, you know, as long as no one gets harmed I don't care if he's a bit of a nutcase. We've got our own people to take care about. It's getting even colder outside, we need to reorganize the space here and make room for about a hundred people camping on the surface of they will freeze. This'll require some organizing and a lot of work. Will you help?”

Kate nodded at once, glad to have been asked and that there was a useful task waiting for her that gave her an excuse not to spend so much time among the sick and the dying. She had been to the surface only once, very briefly, but even then the cold had hit her like a physical blow. It had been September, they were in Texas, and it had been snowing.

Dad had explained it would continue to be this cold until all the clouds caused by the bombings would clear away and that this could take years.

Was it this cold in Argentina? In Italy? In France? Was this the “global winter” everyone used to talk about like it was the boogeyman?

It didn't matter. What mattered was that they needed to save those people on the surface and keep them warm until they could start building shelters outside or reclaim buildings that were still intact. In the meantime, it would be very cramped.

Kate thought she could handle it. She had to. She stayed in her father's arms and they slept the rest of the night half-sitting on his narrow bed. It was the first restful sleep either of them had had in a long time, and it would be the last for ages.

 

-

 

Allowing the people who remained waiting outside their doors inside had been more of a struggle than Colonel Brewster had wanted his daughter to know. Objections had been raised; the additional people would drain their reserves and, more importantly, cause unrest among the civilians already inside, whose tempers were raw with hunger, desperation, and the lack of privacy and comfort. Fights would break out, the attempt to help those on the surface would do more harm than good, was the argument. In the end, a compromise was reached: The people were allowed inside, but only within the space between the heavy inner and the even heavier outer gate. Brewster was not convinced that this was a good solution and that it would work in the long run, but it was better than nothing and would protect those people from the worst of the cold.

He would try to move the children deeper into the bunker later. There weren't many anyway,

Kate helped where she could, clearing space, organizing blankets, re-writing the food schedule. Hunger had become a familiar friend to Robert Brewster as well, but so far no one was, in that sense, actively starving. But they needed more supplies. He worried about what had happened to the teams they send out, much more than he'd let on when talking to his daughter. They all did. A third team had been send out the day before, to find out what happened to the others after their communication broke off due to interference just a mile from the bunker. Getting food was only a secondary mission for them.

Scavengers may have robbed and murdered them after they found something desirable. Everyone still out there was probably armed in some way, and his soldiers may not have expected hostility in this environment when every life seemed so precious. It was one possible explanation, and it was a lot better than killer robots.

They would know more, soon.

Eventually, the gates were opened. The people outside had been informed and were ready. Brewster eyed the men, women and children inside the large hall, sitting on blankets and rags, with suspicion, but no one protested the new arrivals. They had caught glimpses of the situation outside every time those doors opened. They had seen helpless civilians freezing to death and for once they weren't aversed to sharing what little they had. Every now and again, people surprised him.

Kate was down there, handing out blankets, and when they ran out, families in the hall pulled closer together and handed over the blankets they could, just barely, do without. Robert Brewster had been certain things would go south if they tried to force these people to give up anything for the new additions – they would fight them, for sure, and he had been ready to get his daughter out of there at a moment's notice should the situation turn dangerous. Now he left with the hint of a smile on his face.

Other people were in charge of this matter. He was needed elsewhere, had only been there out of concern for Kate and for those civilians they were now responsible for. At the door of the command center he left all that behind of locked it away so it could not distract him: The fate of those people, worries for their future, and also his concern for his daughter and the grief over his wife and his little boy. (He still kept track of time. Tomorrow, he would have been married to Lilly for fifteen years.)

Inside reports awaited him. News from all over the world. Some from what had once been the United States. Other military bases, but not a lot of them. Most messages came from civilians with transmitting equipment who had survived by luck or because they were paranoid people with bunkers in their backyards. All military bases had been specifically targeted, and so had been navy ships on the ocean. These people they kept contact with – most of them were no help and no use and instead relying on the officers in this room to help them.

Colonel Brewster took it all in. Sorted it in his mind. What was important, what was not. What was, but could wait until later. What might offer a solution to one of their many problems.

Lieutenant General Svenson waved him over. The man looked like he hadn't slept in days, but Brewster knew he had: Two hours every day, on a cot in the corner of the control room, like clockwork. He'd had family in a city now gone. Robert imagined keeping inside this control room helped him to resist the urge to leave this bunker and start walking, yelling their names at the top of his lungs until he died.

The General did not yell anything. He was calm and collected and down to business. He, too, had left his family outside this room.

“The third team has reported back,” he said by way of greeting. “They came back into range ten minutes ago and will report asap.”

Those were, finally, good news, Brewster thought. He didn't think so anymore when one single soldier came in five minutes later, bleeding from a shoulder wound and talking about some sort of machine that had seemed to be patrolling the half-intact outskirts of the nearby town and fired at anything that moved with robotic precision. It had gotten half their squat, and then they other half had died in the explosion when a grenade finally took out the bulletproof thing.

“Not one of ours,” the soldier babbled at the end of his fantastic report, when something inside him finally fizzed out. “I don't know what that was. Not one of ours. It was alien. I don't know.”

He was led to medical and Svenson said that his report was useless because the man's mind had clearly snapped. Brewster thought that it was time to establish some line of communication with that nutcase in Argentina.