John was standing at the kitchen sink rinsing out his cereal bowl and deciding how to tell his mother that James Ellison would be arriving at their front door in thirty minutes when Sarah marched in from the garage, carrying a bulky cardboard box. “What’s that?” John asked her.
In reply, she overturned the contents on the kitchen table. With a mighty crash, Terminator parts skittered across the wood and onto the linoleum.
John’s heart sank. So much for easing her into the idea.
“Mom, I can explain,” he started.
“Don’t, John. Just don’t.” Sarah’s voice was whip-like; he flinched. “Don’t make excuses for her. Don’t cover for her.”
John folded his arms across his chest, refusing to be intimidated. “She gets injured, protecting me. She’s no good to me if I can’t fix her.”
“How did Kaliba Group get a Terminator hand, John?”
“I don’t know. Maybe from one of the dozen or so T-triple-eights we’ve discovered running around L.A. since we got here?”
“Okay. And the alternative explanation is…?”
John really didn’t want to have this fight, but it looked like they were going to have it regardless, so he was all in. Strongly, he returned, “No. Cameron didn’t do it.”
Sarah’s expression said loud and clear what a fool she thought he was. John’s pride burned. “How can you say that?” she challenged. “How can you be so sure?”
“Because I’m sure,” John bit out. “And I know her. And she told me.”
Knowing even as he said it those wouldn’t be good enough reasons for his mother. Wanting to rewind the day and escape the conversation. Feeling like he would never prove to his mother that he understood what he was doing.
“She told you,” Sarah sneered. “Just like she told you she destroyed every part we ever captured.” She paused. “Just like she told you she loved you.”
The air left John’s lungs in a rush. She might as well have punched him.
Once again, the sense of déjà vu. John shivered, abruptly chilled. Was there any reality where his mother didn’t hate Cameron?
Derek stepped up in the doorway, looking uncertainly between Sarah and John. “I heard a crash,” he said, then spotted the Terminator components all over the table and floor. His eyes flickered to John, sympathetic.
You’re screwed, buddy, his uncle seemed to say.
Cameron chose that moment to enter the kitchen.
She strolled in the back door, graceful and lithe, wearing her denim mini-skirt and a white eyelet sweater and the Lakers cap John had given her. “Good morning,” she said politely to Sarah and Derek, seemingly oblivious to the tension in the room. She continued right past them to John, who was standing at the sink slowly losing a staring contest with his mother.
Placing her hands on John’s shoulders, Cameron leaned in and kissed him. On the mouth.
He was too startled to do anything. He heard Sarah gasp and Derek make a noise that was either a knowing laugh or an embarrassed cough.
Cameron kept her lips pressed to his for one long moment, then stepped back and said, “Good morning, John.”
It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so damn complicated. John’s cheeks burned. Mentally, he kicked himself for not anticipating this. He had never told Cameron that they might want to hold off on telling Sarah about their relationship. And he had used that ridiculous example last night, asking her if she ever walked into a room and wanted to kiss him, without even considering that she might decide to act on that desire.
Cameron was waiting patiently for him to return her greeting. Sighing, John slipped an arm around her shoulders – might as well do the thing properly, since the secret was out – and said to Sarah, “Maybe we should sit down.”
The doorbell rang.
Shit, he’d totally forgotten about James Ellison. Shit, shit, shit.
“I’ll get it,” Derek said, and fled the kitchen.
“John Connor,” Sarah began, fury heating her words. If she’d had a weapon on her, he was certain Cameron would have been blasted to bits by now.
“Wait,” John broke in, resignedly. “You’re going to be even more pissed at me in about two seconds, so just wait.”
“What are you – ”
Derek cleared his throat. Sarah turned. Her expression when she saw James Ellison standing in her kitchen doorway was priceless.
“Hello, Sarah,” Ellison said evenly. His gaze moved over John and Cameron, standing together at the sink cozy as lovebirds, and back to Sarah, glaring at him with murder in his eyes. “Did I come at a bad time?”
Sarah slammed her fist onto the table. The Terminator components jumped. A few slid onto the floor with a metallic thunk. “What the hell is going on around here?” she demanded.
Ellison glanced at John, who nodded. It was time to put it all out there. And he still had to tell them about Riley. Boy, this was shaping up to be a fabulous day.
“John came to see me, to ask if I’d be interested in joining your fight against Skynet,” Ellison explained. Sarah’s eyes bulged with rage. “I told him I needed to think about it. You see, I’ve been under the impression that I already was helping to fight Skynet, but I’m starting to worry that maybe I was wrong.” He cut a quick look at Cameron, her arm wrapped possessively around John’s waist, and added, “Maybe I’ve been wrong about a lot of things.”
Derek pressed, “How did you think you were helping us?”
“After I left the FBI, I went to work for a company known as Zeira Corp. My boss, Ms. Weaver – ”
The name popped out of John automatically. Ellison arched an eyebrow at him. “You know Catherine Weaver?”
“Who the hell is Catherine Weaver?” Sarah said at the same time.
John gripped Cameron tighter to him, needing the solidity of her body against his. His knees were suddenly weak. Catherine Weaver had been Cameron Phillips’ psychiatrist in Sideways Universe. He recalled her lilting Irish accent on the tape James Ellison had brought to the Connors’ Beverly Hills mansion, when she’d been questioning Allison Young. He had never heard the name before, he was certain of it. Yet now here Ellison was, telling him that Catherine Weaver not only existed, but she was somehow connected to Skynet.
“She was in my dream,” John said to Ellison.
Sarah threw up her hands. “What dream? What is going on?”
Ellison didn’t take his eyes off of John. “After Mexico, when you and…she,” he gestured at Cameron, “came to question me, I lied to you.”
The awful truth crashed in on John. “It was you. You dug up Cromartie,” he realized.
Ellison nodded. “Only his name isn’t Cromartie anymore. It’s John Henry.”
The back door banged shut behind Sarah. She stalked across the lawn, hands balled into fists at her sides, and climbed into the bed of Derek’s truck, shaking with…
What? Fear? Rage? Disbelief?
My son is making decisions that could impact the future of the entire human race based on a dream, she thought.
And then, Kind of like the three dots.
Dammit, this was not like the three dots. The three dots had been written on her basement wall, in blood, by a dying man from the future. Her subconscious had put the pieces together. The way John had described his blackout – this “Sideways Universe,” as he called it – sounded almost like a prophecy. It creeped her out.
The fucking machine creeped her out. Sitting there, its hand resting over John’s, impassive in its possessiveness. Like he was hers, unquestionably. Like she owned him. Sarah wanted to kill it. But she knew her son would never forgive her if she did.
The back door opened and Derek strode across the lawn, lean and handsome and grim. He climbed into the truck bed with Sarah and sat with his back against the rear glass, long legs stretched out in front of him, hands twisted together in his lap. They stayed that way for a long while, neither of them speaking.
Finally, he said, “Look, I know this is all a little crazy, but we need this new John.”
“He’s not a ‘new’ John,” Sarah responded bitterly.
“Seems pretty new to me.”
“That’s because you haven’t known him very long.” Sarah drew her knees up to her chest and stared at the house, picturing what was happening inside – John and the machine holding hands on the couch, Ellison sipping coffee, waiting for Sarah to calm down and come back inside.
“John was a happy kid,” Sarah told Derek, her voice layered with remembering. “It didn’t matter what shithole place we were hiding in. A hovel in Mexico that didn’t have an indoor toilet. A jungle in Central America. He was always eager to learn, up for the next adventure. Always smiling.”
“So what changed?”
“They took him away from me,” Sarah said, simply. The pain of the memory sliced through her. “I got caught. They shipped me off to Pescadero State Mental Hospital and sent my son to live with strangers. They told him Skynet, robots from the future, Judgment Day, it was all a lie. My delusion. Something his crazy homicidal mother made up to explain why she blew a police station all to hell.”
Sarah rested her cheek on her knee, looking at Derek looking at her. “Do you see any parallels to this dream John had? He wakes up in Pescadero, and people tell him Skynet isn’t real?”
Derek held her gaze steadily. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe this dream was a way for John to work out his unresolved childhood issues. Or maybe the machine is right, and it was some kind of alternate reality. I’m pretty convinced those exist. But to be honest, I don’t give a damn if John had a visit from God Himself and all the saints or little green men from Mars. All I care about is that in the past seven days that boy has acted more like the John Connor I know than in all the time I’ve been with you. Whatever he saw, it was good for him.”
Sarah buried her face in her hands, trying to puzzle it all out. Trying to believe. Trying to trust her son.
Gentle fingers touched her hair. She glanced up at Derek, startled. “I know you want to protect your son, Sarah, but Skynet is here, now. It’s building an army. After Judgment Day, it took the machines years to get to the point where their Terminators could infiltrate the Resistance. Even longer to design HKs that we couldn’t knock right out of the sky with a mortar round. If they’ve sent machines back to build those weapons now, the Resistance won’t stand a chance. John won’t have time to become our leader. After Judgment Day, the machines will wipe out the survivors.”
He paused, brushed a lock of hair behind her ear. “We’ll all be dead.”
Judgment Day. For seventeen years, Sarah’s life had centered around that singular event – preparing her son for it, fighting like hell to stop it. But Derek was right. John was right. They didn’t have four years left to get ready for the war. They were already at war. They needed John to be John Connor, the leader of the Resistance, right now.
It was a hell of a burden to put on a sixteen-year-old’s shoulders. Sarah wasn’t sure she believed in a higher power, but perhaps some entity was watching out for humanity. Maybe it had shown John what he needed to see to speed up his becoming.
“What about the machine?” she asked Derek tiredly, surprised by how much she needed his advice on this point.
“He’s in love with it.”
“Exactly. He’s in love with an ‘it’.”
“It’s not an ‘it’ to John. He doesn’t think about the machines like we do. He never has.”
Sarah studied Kyle’s brother, sensing more behind his words than he was letting on. “In the future, you mean? John treats the machines differently in the future?”
“Lots of people disagreed with Connor’s reprogramming project. I was one of them. Metal on every base, metal giving humans commands…But he was right,” Derek admitted, with a sheepish grin. “Put a human up against a machine, the machine may lose, but it’ll take out at least a half-dozen humans in the process. Put a machine up against a machine, you’ve got a much fairer fight, and you don’t get any people killed.”
“I can’t see John sending Cameron into a fight she might lose.”
“She’s with him, in the future,” Derek confirmed. A troubled look flitted across his features; Sarah wondered again what secrets he was keeping. “Some people think he relies on her too much.”
“What do you think?”
“I think he’s John Connor, and I trust him with my life,” Derek responded, with only the slightest hesitation. “And I think you can’t help who you fall in love with.”
John had suffered through some tough days in his sixteen years. His mother being shipped off to a mental hospital. Yeah, that day had sucked. Being ordered by Sarah to up and leave Charlie Dixon. Again, that had sucked. Cameron going bad and trying to kill him. That one pretty much took the trophy for bad days.
So he probably should have been freaking out when he finished his Sideways Universe story and his mother stormed out of the house, but John just couldn’t summon the necessary angst. They’d get through it. They always did. The Connors were survivors.
He poured Ellison another cup of coffee and settled back onto the couch with his arm around Cameron, who sat calmly, not seeming to notice how Ellison jumped every time she moved. “She’s not going to hurt you,” John finally said, feeling sorry for the bigger man.
“So you two are…?” Ellison arched an eyebrow.
John nodded. “Yeah. We are.”
“How does that work, exactly?”
Color tinted John’s cheeks. “We, uh, we haven’t gotten to that part yet.”
The back door opened and Sarah and Derek returned. Derek winked at John, mouthing, We’re cool. John could have hugged him. He knew how his uncle felt about Cameron – about all machines, really – and he appreciated the show of support, though he was certain Derek wasn’t as comfortable with John’s new girlfriend as he was letting on.
Sarah sat down in a chair across from John. She appeared calmer, though her eyes still flashed as she pointed at his arm wrapped around Cameron’s shoulders. “This,” she said tightly, “this I am not okay with. This we are going to have a conversation about. But right now we have more important things to deal with.” Sarah turned to Ellison. “You say this A.I., John Henry, was hacked. By who?”
“John Henry called it his brother,” Ellison replied.
“It could be Skynet,” Derek offered.
“Or John Henry could be Skynet.” John leaned forward, running a hand through his hair as he tried to sort this all out. “I need to meet John Henry.”
“We need to blow John Henry to hell,” Sarah corrected. Her words were flinty, matching the steel in her eyes. “Andy Good died so the Turk wouldn’t become Skynet.” She glanced at Derek, something unspoken passing between them that made John uneasy. “I’m not going to sit back and let Catherine Weaver’s science project destroy the world.”
All of a sudden, a sharp pain shot through John’s head, right behind his stitches: He saw Cameron walking purposefully down a cold basement corridor, beat to hell, her metal skull partially exposed, one eye glowing red… “I’m sorry, John,” he heard her whisper, somewhere in his mind…
“John? John, are you all right?”
Sarah was kneeling beside him, all anger gone from her face, replaced by concern. He realized he was lying on his side, his head on Cameron’s knee.
“What happened?” he managed.
“You passed out.” Sarah looked at Derek. “We should take him back to the hospital. Maybe the head injury – ”
“I’m fine.” John sounded much more certain of that than he really was. What the hell was happening to him? He’d had flashes like that in Sideways Universe. But he knew, in his bones, that the world he was in right now was real. This was no dream. So what had that flash been?
Premonition? a small voice inside him piped up.
What, so I’m psychic now? John argued back to himself.
He recalled the odd senses of déjà vu he’d experienced over the past week, first with Cameron in the garage, then again with his mother in the kitchen this morning. Maybe Sideways Universe had opened up some kind of channel in his brain. Maybe he had tuned in to these alternate realities, and his mind couldn’t close off to them again. Hadn’t he read somewhere that a severe concussion could actually alter a person’s brainwaves?
Whatever was going on, John was absolutely convinced that going in to Zeira Corp with guns blazing would result in a catastrophe beyond his imagination.
Like losing Cameron.
Real fear closed over him. John gazed up into Sarah’s eyes, pleading. “Mom, if you’re ever going to trust me, I need you to trust me now. We need to meet Catherine Weaver. We need to hear what she has to say before we do anything else.”
Sarah studied him, clearly torn. John’s heart was pounding. Cameron’s fingers rested lightly on his forehead; his head was still in her lap, and he gripped her knees, more terrified than he had been in a long time.
Maybe she was responding to the fear in his eyes. Maybe she was starting to trust him. In any event, Sarah nodded once, curtly, and stood. “Set up the meet,” she commanded Ellison.
“You got it.” Ellison stepped over to John and touched his shoulder lightly. “Feel better,” he said kindly, and left.
John sat up, a bit shaky. Sarah and Derek were watching him closely, like he might go into a seizure or something. “I’m all right,” he insisted, trying to sound annoyed by their concern, though deep down he was touched. “Everybody stop looking at me like my head’s going to spin around.”
Cameron frowned, quizzical. “Your head can’t spin around. Your neck would snap.”
John almost laughed, but his mother’s stern glare stopped him.
“Is there anything else you need to tell me, John?” Sarah demanded.
Oh, how he wished he could say no. Instead, John slowly nodded. “There is, actually. It’s about Riley.”