Their boots crunched in the silence as they climbed upwards. Martin's eyes were tearing in the weak grey light, and the wind drove a cold grit under the cloth covering his nose and mouth until he thought he might choke on this dead city, on the dust and ash of the people whose pale shadows crouched against the blackened concrete like waiting gargoyles.
In front of him the sound of Connor's boots stopped. It took Martin another four steps to catch up. Together they stood silently on the lip of the rise, looking down at the city sprawling beneath them.
Connor looked for a long time, his face invisible behind a grimy cloth, and Martin heard the wind screech in the distance against some shard of a building.
"Tell me how this ends," Connor said, finally. He didn't look at Martin.
"This is the fucking end," said Martin.
Connor was silent for so long that Martin thought the conversation, such as it was, had finished, but then Connor said with a strange inflection, "No. This is just the beginning." He turned and started walking back down the hill.
Martin stayed a moment longer, hearing the crunch of Connor's footsteps fade. In front of him Los Angeles was a flattened black plain merging into a black sea, featureless in the perpetual half-light. He remembered the cheap bright colours of an LA sunset, red and gold over the rollerbladers at Venice Beach, and wondered how there could be anything beyond this unstirring horror.
But Connor turned out to be right. Six months later the machines started moving. A slow crawl at first: tank-like things that rolled through the streets, easily enough avoided, and small UAVs that buzzed overhead. Then Skynet started learning, and the crawl became a walk, a run.
A year after that the first camps opened.
The overhead lamps faded in and out like car headlights cresting a distant hill, then failed completely. Even after two years underground Derek found himself straining against the darkness, automatically reaching down with one hand to touch Kyle sleeping at his side. Ten seconds, twenty, then the generator suddenly roared to life and filled the tunnel with noise and brightness and the strong smell of diesel, and Derek let out the breath he'd been holding and pretended to himself that it didn't still feel like a miracle.
The second miracle was food -- food he hadn't had to scavenge himself from the rotting piles topside. He tore open an MRE packet with his teeth; found three Tootsie Rolls inside. He ate one and saved the rest for Kyle. With the sweetness on his tongue it was easy to tilt his head back against the tunnel wall and allow himself to relax into an unfamiliar moment of contentedness.
He watched the camp leaders with half-closed eyes. Their presence lulled him, pulling up the bittersweet memory of Saturday mornings in bed with the sounds of his parents in the kitchen, his child's belief in their guarantee of safety. Bedell, only a few years older than Derek, fair-haired with a runner's wiry frame. Connor was older, maybe in his early thirties, moving easily through the tunnel to touch a shoulder here, say a word there. Nothing special to look at, not the biggest guy in the camp or the one with the most scars, but there was something about him that drew the eye despite itself. Derek found he was holding his breath as Connor worked his way down the tunnel towards them.
"How you settling in, Reese?" Connor didn't crouch next to Derek, just looked down at him, but the set of his mouth was strangely tender. Maybe that was made people look at him, Derek thought: Connor's face wasn't closed like most survivors' were, not blank with grief and shock but open, the shape of his emotions visible even if you couldn't tell what they actually were. They bled out into the space around him, into the people he talked to. John Connor looked at you and felt something, and you felt something back: an echo, a connection.
"Good, sir," said Derek. The 'sir' was an unfamiliar but reassuring addition, a claim on his place in their camp. He'd never been the kind of kid who craved structure; their parents had been easygoing, and he'd been happy to avoid the expectations and planning and just figure out the rest of his life when he got there. But it turned out he didn't get the rest of his life after all, and now he was what they all were: survivors, obeying orders to stay alive.
"You know how to use all the weapons we've got?"
"Not all of them, sir." Most survivor groups had a few handguns between them, but Connor's camp carried an arsenal of military-issue equipment that was somehow less comforting than it should've been, with its suggestion of an underlying necessity.
Connor gestured with his head. "Come with me."
Derek hesitated, glancing down at Kyle, but when he looked back up Connor was smiling faintly. "Claire," he said, to the thin young woman next to Derek, "can you watch Kyle?"
Claire nodded, reaching out to pull Kyle in close to her own sleeping daughter. Derek hesitated again, watching the three of them, until a touch on his shoulder made him jump.
"On your feet, Reese," said Connor, but his eyes were understanding.
The camp armoury had the tight dead look of a Cold War bunker: racks of guns under dust sheets, the rows stretching back away from the light. Under the plastic the weapons were modern, almost new, but Connor didn't explain where they'd come from, just ran his fingers along the rack and said in a dry voice: "Remington 870. SPAS-12. M4. Steyr AUG. MP5. AT4." He reached into the rack and pulled out a rifle, handed it to Derek. "Mossberg 590." He took a box of shells from a shelf and pocketed them, said, "Let's go upstairs."
The topside was dark and still, punctuated by the occasional bark and howl of dogs among the burned-out shells of houses. Above, Derek could see the dim outlines of the city's new landmarks: skyscrapers twisted until their bones thrust outwards like fingers in a game of shadow animals. Rabbit and butterfly and duck, Kyle had said, pointing, and the renaming had seemed fitting, as though this new landscape had no right to resemble, even in name, what it had been before.
Connor stopped and turned to look back at Derek. In the darkness he seemed thoughtful, sad. He said, apropos of nothing, "You don't have to do this alone, Reese."
"What?" said Derek, uncertainly.
"Survive." Connor's lips curved, but the expression was too complicated to be a smile. "Look after your brother. You don't have to do it alone."
Derek felt a pang in his chest, sharp as a push-pin. Relief or gratitude, maybe both, coupled with the pathetic, childish hope that what Connor said was true, even though he knew it couldn't be. Kyle was his responsibility; always would be. It was simply the way the world worked now, a force as incontrovertible as gravity.
He wondered what showed on his face, because Connor gripped his shoulder and said in a low harsh voice, "You've done a good job looking after him."
Derek had to swallow around the sudden tightness in his throat. He couldn't remember the last time he'd gotten praise -- his baseball coach, maybe, when he'd hit that home run the last summer. It was one of a lot of last times he couldn't remember, all of them things he'd taken for granted without even realising they might be finite. The last time he'd eaten icecream. The last time he'd walked barefoot on grass. The last time their mom told him she loved him.
Connor was silent for a few moments, then said almost absently, "Ammo's going to be a problem in the future. But I'd rather you use a few now than have to learn on the battlefield." He paused. "If they give you time to learn."
Derek frowned. "They. The other survivors?"
Connor looked at him. "No. The machines."
"What do you mean?" Derek knew the origins of Judgement Day; knew a computer program had destroyed the world using the weapons mankind had built for it. But even a world-reaching program was just a program, a blind intelligence in the servers.
"They'll come," said Connor. There was a certainty in his voice, a sadness, that made Derek shiver. Connor took the Mossberg and started loading rounds. He said, distantly, "They can't be bargained with, and they can't be reasoned with. They don't feel pity, or remorse, or fear." He looked up and racked the bolt back. The sound was harsh, militaristic, final. "And they absolutely will not stop, ever, until we're all dead."
The heavy thump of artillery overhead made the tunnel walls shake. A constant rain of particles shed off the roof with each tremor, pattering onto the ground below and sending up twisting pencils of dust into the light from Martin's weapon. Sunlight through rain haze over the Hudson, he thought suddenly, and had to blink quickly against the memory. He kicked a larger fallen chunk of concrete, aimed his light at the ceiling.
"Careful," he said. Derek's footsteps came up behind him, and the sweep of his light.
"Maybe we should collapse all these back sections," Derek said. "Keep them from coming up behind."
Martin said, "What's your exit strategy?"
Derek shrugged. His green eyes were set almost a little too wide, jumping out from his face with its pale skin and brutally shaved hair. He had that unnerving, slightly blank intensity common to most of the teenagers. The little kids had done best, after, because they'd never known anything else and almost always still had family. About half the adults adapted, and the rest didn't last long. But the teenagers who survived were missing something, Martin thought. They'd just been starting to think outside themselves when it'd all been wrenched away, and it left them hardened around an unformed core, like pottery left to dry accidentally in the sun.
"First rule," said Martin. "We can't fight these things. Second rule: they always find us. Fight 'em, we're dead. Run like hell when they come, and we might live to run another day." He tipped his light forward into the tunnel, which forked, and took the left.
They'd gone nearly another klick, Derek's boots crunching behind Martin's in stereo echo, when Derek suddenly asked, "Who is Connor?"
Martin absorbed the question and laughed. "Hell if I know, or anyone does."
"But he talks to you."
"What exactly you think we talk about?" Martin shone his light back, making Derek flinch away from the sudden brightness. "This isn't a sleepover pajama party. We talk about what needs to get done, and then we do it."
"You mean you never even asked?"
Martin shrugged. "Doesn't matter what a man was before. Matters what he does now." He turned forward again and kept walking.
Derek didn't follow him immediately, and his voice was uncertain and far away when he said, "Why do you follow him, Martin?"
The question's explosive power seemed too big to have come from its tiny shell: a verbal grenade that made Martin's breath catch for a half-second. When it came back he just said, sharply, "Move out, soldier." There was a long, injured silence behind him before he heard Derek eventually move to comply.
The camp that night was dark, the generator out of diesel. Martin found Derek more by location than anything else; knew he had it right when he saw the additional small figure there, sleeping against Derek's shoulder.
"I'll tell you why," he said, in Derek's other ear. The pattern of Derek's breathing changed, listening, and Martin knew he didn't need to ask what he was talking about. "I need to believe someone can save us." Martin stopped, an ache in his chest tight and painful. Speaking made it real, made it something you couldn't take back. He said, "I need to believe it's him, so I can keep going. So this all means something."
Derek was silent for a while, then he whispered like a confession, "I want him to be proud of me."
Martin tried to laugh, but instead it came out more broken, something he couldn't recognise. "Ain't we both fucked up."
He stayed there a moment longer, shoulder pressed against the kid's in the dark.
The uneasy quiet made them both jumpy. Choi had the nervous habit of flicking his rifle safety on and off, a faint repetitive clicking that set Derek's teeth on edge. He hated sentry duty; hated being topside without a mission to take his mind off the dead landscape and its burning ruins, the constant reminder of other camps fallen to the machines.
There was a faint shuffling off to the right, a puff of sound that carried in the stillness. It started, stopped, shuffled again with a soft click of dislodged stone. Derek felt a cold sweat rise and he glanced across at Choi, signalling for him to duck down. The sound was too heavy for a dog, too irregular for a machine. Human, then.
Derek craned his neck and saw movement a hundred yards off: a ragged shape lurching across the rubble.
"Shit, it's Sequeira," he hissed to Choi, whose eyes widened. Sequeira'd been gone a month, him and Hopgood and Adams, the three never coming back from a routine patrol. Sent to the camps, the rest of them had guessed, or left to rot where they fell.
People didn't come back, and they didn't survive topside alone for a month.
Derek turned and flattened his back against the concrete slab they were sheltering behind. His heart was running so fast he thought he'd be sick, and he couldn't seem to pull deep enough breaths to quell the nausea. He looked over at Choi, holding up the count on his fingers: one, two, three, and then he and Choi lunged out from opposite sides of the slab with their weapons raised.
Sequeira yelled, or tried to, but the only thing that came out was a shredded rasp. The sound ended abruptly when his eyes finally focused on Derek, recognition and relief spreading across his face. "Reese," he said in a harsh whisper. "Reese. Help." He staggered forwards.
"Oh my god," said Choi. Derek could see his gun shaking in his peripheral vision. "Oh my god. What do we do. What do we do."
The urge to throw up was almost overwhelming. "Sequeira," Derek said. He could hear his voice shaking, the adrenaline that was pumping through him making everything seem agonisingly slow. "Luis. You gotta get away from here."
Sequeira looked at him blankly for a second, and then comprehension dawned and he shook his head frantically, no no no. "They let me go, I swear I don't know why, maybe it was a mistake, I swear they're not tracking me--"
"They don't make mistakes!" Derek said harshly. "Of course they're tracking you -- you're fucking bringing them here. Luis, man, you have to go. Go."
Sequeira shook his head dumbly. "Reese, they're not! They're not, I swear--" he turned to Choi. "Jason, please help me-- you can't turn me away," his voice rose, shaking, disbelieving. "What are you going to do, force me back out there, no shelter, nothing to eat--"
Choi shook his head, blanching, not saying anything.
"Go," said Derek, choking. "Go, Luis."
"You can't turn me away!" Sequeira screamed in his shredded voice, the sound drawing up horrified goosebumps on Derek's skin. "You can't leave me to die!"
Derek squeezed his eyes shut for an instant. He thought he could hear the machines coming already, the tread of their metal feet. Beside him Choi was whimpering. He opened his eyes.
"Luis. Go. Please." He had to take one of his hands off his weapon to wipe it on his pants. He was excruciatingly conscious of the consequences of failure: the camp, Kyle. "We'll bring you something, some food, but just go now please."
"I can't go back out there!" Sequeira lunged forwards, reaching, imploring, and later Derek remembered that all his fingers were broken and hanging, bleeding.
The burst from Derek's gun seemed to whisper, nightmarish and unreal. Sequeira jerked, chest opening in a spray of blood, and fell.
For a moment the world was absolutely still. Then Derek fell to his knees and vomited, reflexive horror. Distantly he heard Choi gasping, "Fuck. Fuck. Fuck." Derek pulled himself up, staggered to Sequeira, pulled the knife from his belt and slit Sequeira's shirt with a shaking hand. He tried not to look at Sequeira's face but saw it anyway, eyes wide and terrified, a froth of blood trickling along his jawline from between clenched teeth.
Derek had to stop to throw up again when he felt the outline of the metal underneath Sequeira's skin. Blood welled up over his hands as he cut it out, and he had the strange, numb sensation of operating at a distance. His mind was blank except for the images that seemed piped in -- the white bone of Sequeira's ribs, the pattern of blood on the ground.
The implant itself seemed tiny and innocuous. He stared at it for a moment, blank and uncomprehending, until blind revulsion at the fact of it -- metal -- wrung him like a spasm and he found himself kneeling in the dirt and smashing it with the butt of his rifle, pounding at it over and over again until his arm ached and Choi was pulling him away saying, "Derek, Derek."
Downstairs, Derek found Connor talking to Bedell, the two of them looking intently at a hand-drawn map. Connor looked up when Derek approached and his whole demeanour instantly shifted into alertness. "Reese," he said.
It was too hard to speak, to trust himself to be controlled, so Derek just wordlessly opened his palm to show Connor the bloodied pieces of metal and plastic. Connor's face sharpened. He looked at Derek searchingly, holding him there with the look until Derek blurted in a plea for something, anything, "I had to do it. Didn't I?"
Connor's expression made Derek want to cry: a hollow look of regret and pain and sadness that was somehow all Derek's fault. He'd had to do it, he thought desperately; he'd saved them all, but Connor was looking at him with the kind of deep, bone-aching sorrow that made him feel like he'd sinned, lost some vital part of himself.
"I'm sorry," Connor said. Derek didn't know what he was apologising for; didn't even know if Connor was speaking to him or to Sequeira or to something else: a memory, an ideal. Connor took the pieces from Derek's hand and closed his own around them, tight enough to turn the skin on his knuckles white. "I'm sorry."
That night, even with Kyle's small reassuring weight against his side, Derek dreamed of Sequeira's dead face, blood on his hands, metal.
The next morning the machines came, anyway, when Derek and Bird were out on patrol. He hadn't saved them after all; hadn't changed a fucking thing.
He didn't see Kyle or Connor or Bedell after that for another six years.
Kyle rarely worked near Connor on the line, but today for some reason Connor was standing next to him: a presence that lingered at the edges of Kyle's attention, distracting him. He didn't know much about Connor, for all that he and Bedell were the constants that kept them all alive. Kyle knew about Bedell: his love of running, his highschool girlfriend and her white lace panties, his two years at West Point. It was hard not to know about people, to hear and repeat their stories and tell them your own. But Connor was blank -- a presence, rather than a person.
He jumped when Connor said, conversationally, "I was born in Mexico." He didn't pause at his task, his hands fast and sure on the circuitboard in front of him. "Moved around a lot, but stayed this one town, Dejalo, a year and a half. A church, a bar, not much else. My mom had a place on the beach -- this old shack with stolen electricity, stolen water."
Everyone who remembered before told the teenagers and kids about it -- it was a ritual now, Kyle figured. Oral history, passing the memories down to the next generation who barely remembered. In the tunnels, Derek had told Kyle the plot of every movie he'd ever watched, and these were what Kyle remembered now: the mashed up stories of comic books and action movies, more than the real things themselves. Derek had told him stories about their mom and dad, all the embarrassments and misunderstandings and mundane moments of happiness. Their dad in his old college t-shirt in the garden; the sweep of their mom's hair when she leaned over the mixing bowl.
On good days, Kyle thought he'd tell his own kids about his fading memories of baseball on the grass with Derek, and Spongebob Squarepants, and tell them Derek's mashed up stories that'd become new stories, their stories. On bad days, he wondered what the fuck use it was to remember the fourth of July and baseball and Cool Whip when everyone in the world was already dead and he'd spent a third of his life in a concentration camp, just waiting to join them.
Other adults talked about their days before, but as far as anyone was aware Connor didn't have a before. Kyle found that he was listening with his breath caught. He wondered if Derek had ever heard this from Connor, if Bedell had, or if, improbably, it was something for him alone. The moment felt fragile and accidental, like the soap bubbles he barely remembered.
"Couldn't swim at the beach after it rained," Connor said. "Place was covered in plastic, water bottles and packaging, half of it from California. For a couple of years that was all I knew about America, Butterfinger wrappers and Big Gulp. Spoke more Spanish than English -- my mom had a Mexican boyfriend, a cop, he taught me how to shoot, how to drive."
Kyle had been eight when Derek had taught him how to shoot, carefully holding his hands around their dad's Colt .45. It was hard to imagine Connor as a kid, learning the same things at the same age Kyle had been. He wondered why Connor had been learning in the first place, stuff kids shouldn't have had to know in the world before.
Connor finished one chip assembly; handed it down the line to Tavarez. He said, almost absently, "Place was a shithole three-sixty-four days of the year, except Dia de los Muertos." He looked at Kyle, who looked back at him blankly. "All Souls day," Connor said. "Halloween, in America."
Kyle remembered Halloween, two or three years' worth -- Derek taking him house to house and splitting afterwards to hang with friends, Kyle at home with their mom and dad, sick to the gills with candy.
"They used to put candles along all the streets, in the cemeteries. Place was still a shithole, but that one night all you could see was this blaze of light against the dust, everyone all in costume so that death couldn't find them--" Connor's voice had dropped off into the quietness of private memory. He stopped for a second, then reached into his ragged shirt and pulled something from an inner pocket, handed it to Kyle.
Kyle looked at it. It was a strange plasticky photo of a woman, the colours faded with age. He touched it briefly with his fingertip, wondering at the blue sky of the world before it burned, the delicate features of the woman, her clean clothes. He looked up: Connor was watching him with an expression he couldn't understand.
"My mom," Connor said.
Photos were only ever of the dead. "She was beautiful," Kyle said, because that seemed the right thing to say, but what he actually thought was that the woman looked sad and fragile, impossibly far away in a fictional world that didn't seem real to him. He went to hand the photo back, but Connor shook his head, still with that strange expression. "Keep it," he said. "For luck."
There was something serious and promising in Connor's face that prevented Kyle from asking why he might need luck. He slipped the photo into his pocket instead, and turned back to work.
Connor led them out, the next day: a rush of humanity hurling itself against metal like a tide, wearing it down with the sheer volume of breaking flesh. In the adrenaline confusion of bodies and explosions, Kyle saw kids he grew up with fall, saw Connor fall. He didn't think: just grabbed in blind desperation, slinging Connor's weight half across his shoulders, the two of them half-running and half-limping towards the gates.
Later, even though it seemed stupid, he attributed their survival to the photo in his pocket, a imperceptible weight that seemed to burn.
There were no chairs in Connor's war-room, just a single large oval table he'd found somewhere and repurposed for the resistance. Most of the space around the table was occupied by softening cardboard boxes. Martin found a crate that wasn't too moist and sat down to strip the 203 tube from his M4. The topside grit fucked everything, jamming bolt mechanisms and corroding firing pins, though there was a grim satisfaction in knowing the machines suffered from it worse.
"He can't do it," Connor said. His arms were braced against the table in a tight V, tension radiating along the angled line of his back. There was a battlefield map and marked-up overlay in front of him: the rehash of their failure.
"Derek Reese?" said Martin.
"He can't lead a group that size." Connor's voice was flat. "Tactically he's good, and he's good under pressure. But he's not flexible enough. He couldn't deal with the unexpected events of that mission -- couldn't change his approach from what I told him to do."
"He's a follower," Martin said. "He needs an SOP."
"SOPs get you killed."
Martin pulled the retaining pin from the bolt assembly of his M4 and wiped it carefully. "These kids are tunnel rats, not trained soldiers. They don't know enough to make judgement calls on the field -- they need rules. If an SOP saves seventy, eighty percent of everyone who goes out there, it's worth having."
"One in four human beings is not an acceptable casualty rate," Connor said, his voice low and angry. Martin knew better than to assume the anger was directed at him. Connor was never angry at others, even the metal -- he was angry at the world for having turned out the way it had. The senselessness of it, the suffering. But a reasonable person couldn't hate intangibles like destiny or fate or whatever cosmic sense of horseshit irony had caused Judgement Day, and so Connor's anger turned inwards, a self-recrimination so strong that Martin wished, for Connor's sake, that the war had made him numb and inhuman instead, like the rest of them.
"Kyle Reese," Martin offered. "Not much combat experience, but he's got initiative and he's stubborn as fuck."
"He's too young."
"Even back in Century he was old enough to save your ass, Connor. What's he now -- twenty, twenty one? I was barely fucking twenty when the tin cans took over."
Connor shook his head, face still turned away. "You always knew you'd be going to war, Martin."
"So did the rest of the goddamned military, and look how they turned out. Get Kyle to take them in. We have to win this one back."
Connor was silent for a moment, and then he said, "I'll go."
Martin dropped his M4 into his lap. "Connor. Connor," he said, until Connor turned to look at him. "What the fuck?"
"Kyle can't go. I'll do it."
"Fuck that shit, you're not going anywhere. If you want someone out there who knows what they're doing, I'm the one to go, not you."
Connor's face was blank. "This resistance needs a strategy, and you understand strategy better than anyone, including me. The minute we start fighting tactical battles without thinking about the big picture, we've lost the war."
"Fuck, Connor!" Martin looked at him in disbelief. "You're saying big picture, but it's like you don't fucking get the big picture. Without you, this resistance is nothing. We could have all the strategy and equipment in the world, and without you as a leader it'll all fall down. These kids follow you, Connor. They die for you. We need you alive as much as the machines need you dead, and nobody else matters."
They were silent for a moment, and then Connor said harshly, "This isn't survival any more. It's not even guerilla tactics, I'm telling these kids to go out and make a frontal assault against facilities defended by things that can't die. I send them out there in the full knowledge that most of them won't come back, when I'm not even sure that what I'm telling them to do will actually make a difference. And I'm just supposed to -- keep doing it?"
Martin held his eye. "Yeah. You are."
Connor dropped his head back down over the map. His breathing was rough, catching against the back of his throat in a way that made Martin want to cough.
Martin went back to cleaning his gun. There was a nakedness about Connor's pain that was almost unbearable, prompting Martin to ask, "What were you, before?" He didn't know why exactly he'd asked; never had before, after all. Thought perhaps he just needed to know that Connor'd had a normal life, once; had maybe been happy.
Connor turned his head over his shoulder to look at Martin blankly, and Martin thought he hadn't heard the question. But then something unreadable shadowed across Connor's face and he said, "Nothing. I've never been anything other than this."
Martin shivered, feeling the hair rise on the back of his arms. Looking at Connor's bleak, scarred face, it wasn't hard to imagine him having sprung from nothing, fully-formed with a gun in his hand, facing down the apocalypse. A saviour who never knew anything other than pain and war and suffering.
Connor clenched his hands around the edge of the desk, knuckles turning white. Looking away from Martin he said, "Do it again. Take over from Reese and get every single person who can carry a weapon to go out with you. Girls, boys, everyone." His voice was completely emotionless.
Martin looked at him for a long minute, then nodded and stood to head for the door. He was halfway outside when, behind him, Connor said, "Thank you."
Martin stopped, turned back. "Just lead us," he said. "We'll all die for you."
Connor didn't look up from the map, but the line of his shoulders stiffened. "I know."
She'd always had bad luck: her mother'd told her so, when Allison had finally been old enough to understand that the present world wasn't the only one there'd ever been. She'd been cheated of that better world by other people's mistakes, of her childhood by Century, but what her mother'd never understood was that bad luck was the J-Day default: good luck never happened, never mysteriously saved anyone from a bullet. There was only the luck you made for yourself, and if you waited for luck then you were just waiting to get dead.
Bad luck was the fact that this was the first mission she'd ever led, a standard reconnaissance, and they'd somehow crossed paths with a triple-eight. Bad luck was the fact the trip-eight had seen them. Bad luck that between them they only had three 9mms and a plasma. Most recon teams still had M4s or Steyrs instead of plasma, so perhaps it wasn't even bad luck, Allison thought, squeezing the trigger and watching the charge rise red in the barrel. But it wasn't good luck, either: it just was what it was.
She pressed her back against the cold slab behind her. The rifle whined steadily, increasing in pitch until the whole casing was vibrating against her hands. Her own terror seemed packed down into an internal vibration like the rifle's, an explosion delayed by sheer force of will. Ahead of her she could see the others crouching in the rubble, the adrenaline in her system sharpening her vision abnormally until their faces popped into stark focus: Eli seemingly paralysed with fear, Ben whispering to himself, Alex juddering backwards and forwards in an abbreviated rocking motion. Allison found herself distracted by the movement, her brain counting and finding patterns and discarding them in a strange moment of terrified self-hypnosis. Two it won't find us, three it will, four it won't, five it will--
Allison held her breath, shuddering silently, the rifle mercifully silent at full charge.
Funny how the unreliable human ear could instantly tell a machine step from a human one. Something about the absolute lack of hesitation, the perfectly even footfalls, the brighter sharper sound of naked metal, rather than boots, sinking through crushed rock and bone.
Afterwards, all she remembered was the way time had seemed compressed and unreal: everything simultaneous and soundless, the arcing leap of plasma from the muzzle of her rifle into the trip-eight's chest, the blow-back that threw her skidding through shattered concrete, bruised and hurting and alive.
Kyle found her, later. "He wants to see you," he said. He touched her arm, gave her a half-smile. "Heard you had some rough shit go down today."
Connor's office was down a long featureless grey corridor. Wells, lounging on guard duty outside, gave her a smile as she entered. The inside of the office was reinforced, giving the impression of a bunker within a bunker. Connor rose from behind the desk when he saw her.
"Sir," she said.
Connor came around and leaned back against the front of the desk. He seemed tired, his face drawn and bags under his eyes. She found it surreal to be this close to him -- to be able to see him as a human, a tired one with a smear of dirt across one cheek, rather than the almost mythical figure she'd grown up talking about in hushed whispers. Her heart was beating fast from nervousness and awe, so loud she thought he'd be able to hear it across the arm's length of distance that separated them.
"How old are you, Young?" Connor asked.
"Sixteen, sir," she said.
Connor's face tightened almost imperceptibly in something like pain. He was silent for a moment, looking down in thought, while Allison tried not to fidget. She spent the time examining him, not quite able to suppress her lingering sense of wonderment at the fact of his flesh-and-blood realness. There was an old white scar running vertically down his left cheek, and she found herself shivering internally at the thought of him as vulnerable. It was sacrilege, blasphemy, of a kind.
Eventually Connor looked up at her and said, "You did well today."
"Sir," she said, awkwardly. She saw a flash of metal before her eyes, her palms sweating instantaneously at the memory of it, and blurted, "If I was more careful, maybe--"
He cut her off with a crooked smile. "Bad luck happens to everyone, Young. The important thing is that you kept a cool head and got your team out in one piece."
"Sir," she said. He was still looking at her, something horrifyingly direct about it, and to her horror she felt heat rise into her cheeks under the grime, burning. She knew she was just a tunnel rat, a faceless nobody, but John Connor was looking at her and she felt elevated and noticed. Maybe he'd remember her face, she thought wistfully, so she wouldn't be just another statistic.
After what felt like an achingly long time he said, simply, "That's all, soldier."
Later, she replayed the moment in her mind. She thought of him, with a thrill of wrongness, as a man -- remembered the creases in his shirt, the sorrow on his face, the shape of his hands linked together in front of him. She loved him, she thought. They all loved John Connor, the figure -- would all die for him and what he represented, but she loved the tired man who told her that she did well, and who she hoped would mourn her death, even if just for a second, before moving on with his task of saving them all.
There was no warning, just an explosion that slammed into the building like a giant fist, punching out the internal walls and sending the equipment crashing across the benches. Light panels popped from the ceiling and hung swaying from their wiring like disembodied eyeballs, casting a sick dance of shadows across the room. Andy's ears rang and he reeled, stunned, off his chair and against the wall as another explosion made the building shudder. Plaster rained down, filling the air with a choking white haze.
He heard distant gunfire. There was a response unit of machines already in the corridor and heading towards the entrance when there was a third, different-sounding explosion that drew a piercing electronic scream from every piece of equipment in the room. The noise stopped abruptly almost as soon as it'd started, and the lights went out.
The darkness was absolute, and Andy felt panic rising. He sat rigidly against the wall until the emergency lights came on, glowing red like machines' eyes in the ceiling. The dim glow was enough to let him crawl to the door and look out. The machines had fallen in the middle of the corridor, stacked against each other in a tangle of metal limbs. Further down the corridor he could make out the sweep of flashlights going room to room, the sound of human voices, and he hurriedly ducked back inside. He was shaking so badly that the door bounced back twice before he managed to get it shut. He pressed himself back against the wall: a useless gesture, he knew, like a frightened animal in a cage.
He heard the door slam open, and flinched back from a dazzling light in his eyes. He squeezed his eyes shut and curled in on himself, feeling the fear overwhelm him: it was harder and harder to breathe, and as he pulled in huge sucking gasps of air he realised he was sobbing.
Someone shook his shoulder, hard, and he gasped and opened his eyes. All he could see of the man in front of him were hard green eyes, the rest of his features covered by a black knit cap and black cloth tied over his face. The man was crouched over him, shaking his shoulder and saying urgently, "Are you the only human in the building?"
Andy scrabbled away from him, tried to, but the wall was pressed against his back and all he could do was turn his head away. The man shook his shoulder again, spoke right in Andy's ear with a harsh tone of command that made him jump: "Are you the only human in the building?"
Andy's cheek was pressed against the wall. He strained away from the voice but nodded his head, more of a reflexive helpless twitch. He thought he might choke to death on his own fear, could hear his own stuttering inhalations, couldn't seem to get enough air into his lungs with each pull.
The man got up and went away briefly, and Andy breathed out, coughing sourness from the back of his throat, no thoughts in his head, and then the man was back and crouching next to him again. This time Andy was too exhausted to try and pull away. He kept his cheek against the wall, away from the man, feeling the cool metal against his skin. The man was silent beside him, listening to Andy's ragged breathing.
"I didn't--" Andy said, finally. He choked on his words, said again, "I didn't want to die." He turned his head to look at the man. The man had pulled down the cloth covering his nose and mouth. His face was lined and carved with tiredness and grief, a mechanically precise vertical scar bisecting his left cheek.
The man didn't ask what Andy was talking about, didn't seem to need to ask about the moment the machines, Andy's own creation, his own children, came to him and gave him a choice. "I know," he said, and his face was full of compassion and sorrow.
The compassion broke Andy's temporary composure. His breath left him in a broken sound, not coherent enough to be a sob, before he took a deep shuddering breath and said, "I made this. I did this."
The man said again, quietly, "I know."
Andy gasped and shook for a minute. "How--" he forced out. "How can I--" The sentence stuck in his throat, the concept too vast and devastating to be able to frame in words that didn't sound trite, meaningless. How can I make good for my sins.
The man was silent for a long moment. "By living," he said. "Every human life means something, even yours."
There was a sound outside the room and someone said, "Connor?"
Andy flinched and turned his head away again, pressing back against the wall. "You're the one the machines talk about," he said, dully.
The person outside said more demandingly, this time, "Connor!"
Connor leaned in close and said, low, so forcefully that Andy shuddered, "Bedell and Reese are out there. They're good men, but they will kill you if they know what you are, so listen to me. Your name is Billy Wisher. You were captured from Perry's camp on July 18, 2025, five months ago. You were held here and tortured, but you don't know why. You never told them anything." Connor looked at Andy. "Perry will follow my order to back your story. Understand?"
Andy nodded dumbly.
"Good," said Connor. "Put your hand on the floor."
Andy placed his shaking hand on the floor, fingers outstretched, his mind still stuttering. Bedell and Reese will kill you. Connor caught Andy's eye, then lifted his gun in one smooth vertical motion and smashed it down onto Andy's fingers.
When Andy came to in a haze of red agony, curled around his broken hand, three men were standing over him. The two flanking ones had their guns pointed at him, the lights blinding.
Connor stepped forwards, a black silhouetted shape, his weapon held at his side. "Come with me if you want to live," he said, extending his hand.
And Billy Wisher took it.
When the briefing was over, everyone dispersing, John said calmly, "Young, can I see you for a minute?"
Allison noticed General Perry giving them a strange look, but John was already heading down the corridor. She caught up with him as he scanned his eyes at a door, opening it and gesturing her inside. The interior of the room was gloomy, and she couldn't see much beyond the murky outlines of a table. She frowned.
Behind her the door clicked shut, and then she heard another click -- a familiar click, of a safety coming off, and she jumped and turned to find John aiming his MP5 at her. A flash of cold, sickening nausea hit her like a blow: disbelief, fear.
"John," she said. Her voice sounded small, frightened, in her ears. "John, what are you doing?"
She backed away from him a step. He came up close, fast, and the muzzle of the MP5 touched her ribs. She stood still, petrified.
"Back up," he said. She took a step, another, and then something hit the back of her knees. They buckled and she fell backwards, something coming up around her from the table with a heavy metal chunk sound. She struggled, panic rising. "John!"
The lights came on and John was looking down at her with an unreadable expression. She looked frantically at her wrists; saw solid metal bands holding them down, the same across her ankles and torso. John placed the MP5 on a side table, and when she followed the motion of his hands she saw a knife, pliers. John calmly picked up the knife and Allison started struggling again with real desperation, the metal hurting her wrists. Distantly she could hear herself gasping and babbling. "John. John? You can't do this. Please, John, please. John, listen to me. Please, John. I love you! I love you, please. I love you, John."
He looked at her, the same expression on his face that she didn't know the meaning of, and said, "I know. I'm sorry." He looked down at her arm, cuffed against the table, and pressed the tip against her inner forearm.
Allison felt a sharp sting; saw the blood well up against the metal. John pressed harder and she all she could do was beg helplessly, gasping against the pain, "I'm not a machine, John, please, John, I feel, don't--"
Eventually John stepped away from her with the bloodied blade and said, "Look." She shook her head in mute disobedience, and John said again, commanding, "Look."
When she looked down she saw metal: gleaming, bloodied hydraulics shuttling back and forth inside the opened skin of her forearm. But even as she screamed she was aware of a change unfolding inside her -- a mental shrug that cascaded through her entire body, reconverting her pain and sensation and horror and betrayal into data points that slid and shifted smoothly in constant calibration. The machine that called itself Allison started struggling again, and this time the metal around it creaked and groaned.
John was still standing looking down at it. He said, "Infiltrator units that actually think they're human? A high cost, high risk tactic. If you're triggered too early, you're exposed and damage your chances of successfully completing your mission. And if you're triggered too late--" He picked up the bloodied knife and walked around to the side of its head. It felt the penetration of the knife into the skin and tissue covering its cranium, and the drag and pressure that indicated a circular incision. "You've just handed the enemy a valuable asset."
John slid the tip of the knife under the cover of the CPU port and flicked it open. It heard the hiss of depressurisation; calculated that it would take another six minutes to fatigue the bonds holding its endoskeleton in place. The estimated removal time of the CPU was thirty seconds or less, unless alternative measures were taken. It watched John place the knife back on the table and pick up the pliers.
"Allison died rather than betray you," it said. "They all die for you. Why?"
John paused. The angles of his wrist and elbow suggested he had the pliers resting on the tab of the CPU, but whatever pressure he was exerting there was too faint for the machine to detect. There was an expression on his face, similar but slightly different to the one he'd worn before. "I don't know," he said, and twisted.
The facility was deep within the mountain, the windowless corridors thick with the metallic reek of blood. Kyle followed Connor, who seemed to know where he was going. There were bodies everywhere, more people than Kyle had ever seen at once except for in Century, curled up into the walls like those fighting through behind had pushed their bodies aside so they could pass, and then fallen in the same places. Perry's 132nd division, completely slaughtered. They'd taken this facility with sheer guts and sacrifice. The canyon was a natural kill zone, so they hadn't had any strategic advantage: Connor'd just poured more and more men and women into the facility until they'd overrun it. Kyle knew Connor's aversion to frontal assaults; wondered what was so important in this facility that he'd been willing to pay such a high price for it.
At the end of the corridor Connor opened a door and ushered Kyle inside. The inner room was filled with the smell of ozone and the deafening hiss of raw elemental power: lightning, Kyle thought with a shiver, feeling the charge tickle along his arms, his scalp. In front of them, a glass window opened onto a view of giant pylons, crackling with visible discharge, surrounding a glowing blue circle on the ground.
Behind him, Connor said, "This is what they died for."
"What is it?"
Connor stepped beside him. He was silent for a while, face lit in the flickering cold light of the electricity, and then he said distantly, "A time-displacement unit."
He looked at Kyle, who met his eyes steadily and said, "Sir."
The corner of Connor's mouth moved, some wrenching private emotion that Kyle didn't want to try and interpret, but his eyes didn't move from Kyle's face. There was always something eerie about looking directly at Connor, Kyle thought: sometimes you thought you knew him, but then he looked back at you and you realised you didn't have the faintest clue. His eyes reminded Kyle of Derek on a bad day: that same flat green stare that said he'd seen too much and it was all full of unimaginable horror.
"Skynet's been sending machines back through time to ensure the resistance never happens." Connor seemed to be pulling the words from himself with effort. "The system still contains the logs of where the machines were sent: what year, what their intended target was." He stopped for a long time, his hand pressed against his temple as if in pain, and then said, "We need to start doing the same. Send soldiers back to where the machines have gone. Stop them before they stop us."
Kyle swallowed, his thin veneer of disbelief dissolving in the face of a stark, primal terror. People didn't face down machines one-on-one and survive; he could count on one hand the number who had. He hoped Connor couldn't hear the shake in his voice as he said, "Who do you need me to protect?"
Connor's eyes were shadowed. "Sarah Connor."
Kyle breathed out slowly. He wished he still had the picture, but knew he saw her face perfectly in his mind anyhow: the curve of her mouth set in the same sadness he'd seen on her son's face, the soft wave of her hair, her unscarred beautiful skin. Sarah Connor, the woman who'd taught John Connor everything he knew: how to fight, how to survive, how to recognise the value of a human life even in the midst of a war.
He swallowed again, nodded. "Sir--" he said. He stopped, tried again, "Sir -- Derek."
Connor tipped his head slightly in acknowledgement. "I'll tell him you said goodbye." He touched Kyle's shoulder, held it for a moment. "Kyle--" He stopped, an agonised expression flickering across his face as he seemed to change his mind about something, then just said simply, "Thank you."
She found him standing in the chronoportation room, staring out through the glass at the flickering electrical discharges. She stepped up to his shoulder. "Derek Reese is here."
It seemed like he hadn't heard her or even registered her presence, but then he said, "Tell me how this ends, Cameron."
She considered the question, running a few iterations of their current scenario until the answer became apparent. "It never ends," she said. "You keep sending people back, and they keep sending people back. In every new future you create there is a Judgement Day, and it happens over and over again. Forever."
Cameron comes in, dressed in short shorts and a pink bra visible through her white singlet. "It's hot out," she says, by way of lame explanation, and lies on the bed next to him in that too-careful way she has that makes her seem like a freak, every time. John thinks she's on some kind of campaign to scare off Riley -- Cameron and his mom both, and he has to give a bitter laugh at that: his mom and the robot bonding over their hatred for his girlfriend, the only normal thing he's ever had in his whole pathetic life.
John lies still and stares resentfully at the fucking emasculating wallpaper. Biplanes and cowboys and clouds and fucking plaid. He wonders what happened to the kid who owned this room, whether he grew up and sold his ass for cash on Sunset just to spite his mom who'd papered his room with all the things she thought her little boy should be.
Cameron is looking at him sideways, a frown between her eyebrows, like she's trying to see inside his head and getting annoyed at the fact she's failing.
"What," he says.
Cameron is silent for a second, and then she says, "I understand that being John Connor can be lonely."
John scowls at her. "Oh yeah? How'd you understand that?"
She regards him steadily. "We talk about it a lot."
"We do?" He looks away uneasily.
"We do. We will."
The future hangs there between them. He swallows and hates the way his voice breaks a little as he asks, "So what do I say to you in the future?" It feels like cheating, asking about these things he'll do, the things he'll say, but he figures since his entire fucking life is a one-way street towards John Connor, Saviour of the World -- no unscheduled stops, please keep all your limbs inside the moving vehicle -- it doesn't much matter if he sees the end result then or now.
Cameron says, "You say, 'Tell me how this ends.'"
John jerks when she produces a man's voice, eerie like a recording of the dead, familiar and not until he realises with a shudder of dread that the voice is his. His future reaching back and touching him, grabbing him, not letting him go. The hairs on his arms rise and he feels ill with a cold, leaden horror.
"So how does it end?" he asks, dully. He already knows how it ends. It ends in death and destruction and sacrifice, in pain and suffering and the end of world.
But Cameron just looks at him, and for a moment he thinks he sees compassion in the blankness of her face.
"Like this," she says, and kisses him.
"Tell me how this ends." -- General D. Petraeus.