“Where’s your robot assassin?”
James Ellison folded his powerful arms across his broad chest and fixed John with a sardonic look. He stood on the threshold, blocking the doorway to his house. John offered a conciliatory smile. “She’s in the car,” he replied.
Ellison peered over his shoulder. From the driver’s seat of the SUV, Cameron waved.
John held up a bakery bag. “I come in peace.”
“Doughnuts, for a cop?” Ellison’s lips twitched around a smile. “How’d you know?”
The two of them sat in Ellison’s neat-and-tidy living room, drinking coffee and working their way through a half-dozen glazed doughnuts apiece, while John did his best to explain what had led him back to the lawman’s doorstep. “This is going to sound crazy,” he started.
Ellison held up a hand. “John, a few months back I went to see the psychiatrist who treated your mother when she was in Pescadero. The man drugged me, tied me to a chair, and slit my leg open to discover if I was, in fact, a robot from the future. When he found out I wasn’t, he tried to burn me alive. I was rescued by a woman who blew herself up in a bank vault eight years ago. I think we’re passed worrying about what sounds crazy,” he concluded. “So why don’t you just tell me what’s on your mind, and I’ll tell you if it’s something I can help you with.”
“All right.” John leaned back on the couch. “I was in a car accident.”
“Is that what happened to your head?” Ellison interrupted.
John touched the stitches along his scalp. “I was unconscious for almost a day. While I was out, I had this dream. You were in it. You were friends with my mother. When I got in trouble, she called you.”
“If you were ever in trouble, John, I would try to help you.”
“Why?” John asked, with genuine curiosity. “This isn’t your fight. You could have just walked away. You didn’t have to come for me in Mexico.”
“This is all our fight. All humanity’s.” Ellison gestured to the Bible lying open on his desk. “The Book of Revelation warns us about the end of the world. These machines, they’re our own creation turned against us. They’re the final outcome of man’s hubris, to think we can create something more perfect than what God created in us.”
John pictured Cameron, her long fall of dark hair, her intense eyes, her sculpted features. She is more perfect than we are, he thought, but what he said was, “You sound like my mother. She hates scientists. She hates technology.”
“We can’t hate technology. Without technology we’d still be living in mud huts dying of malaria and small pox. But there has to be a limit. There has to be a point at which we recognize that machines cannot replace human beings.”
Ellison leaned forward, bracing his elbows on his knees. “Is that why you came to see me today, John? Because of a dream?”
“I told you, it sounds crazy.”
“Prophets had dreams. In the Old Testament, that was how the will of God came to them.” Ellison’s somber eyes captured John’s. “John the Baptist, he was a prophet, did you know that? He came to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus Christ. The Messiah.” He paused. “Is that why you’re here? To prepare us for what’s coming?”
John wasn’t buying the Sunday School teacher routine. He respected Ellison’s faith, but he’d seen the man in a fire-fight with a Terminator. Anybody that tough wasn’t a choir boy. It was time to cut the polite tea-party bullshit and get down to business.
“Look, Mr. Ellison, maybe you’re interested in the nature of my eternal soul or whatever, but I don’t have a lot of time to ponder the existential dilemma of my purpose in life,” John said. “I’m no prophet, and I’m sure as hell no Jesus Christ. I’m here to stop Skynet from being built. And if I can’t do that, then I’m here to make sure human beings go on after Judgment Day. That we stand up and fight back. I’m here to ask if you’d be able to help me with that.”
Ellison placed his coffee cup on the table and studied his hands. “I need to think about this.”
John didn’t underestimate the magnitude of what he was asking of Ellison. Committing to the fight against Skynet usually ended in one of two ways: People either had to give up everything they cared about in order to survive, like Charlie Dixon, or they ended up dead, like Miles Dyson.
“Take as long as you need,” John said.
Laughter greeted Sarah when she opened the back door that afternoon. John’s laughter.
She stopped on the threshold so suddenly Derek bumped into her. “Sorry,” he said, his hands briefly circling her waist as he steadied her.
Again, she caught the scent of perfume on his clothes; she stiffened, and he brushed past her. “Sounds like someone’s having fun,” he remarked.
“That’s what bugs me,” Sarah muttered, too quietly for him to hear.
Not that Sarah minded John having fun. She did, however, mind that the surest way to bring a smile to her son’s face these days was to put him in the same room as the damn machine.
John and Cameron were seated across from one another at the kitchen table, a Scrabble board between them. “Frazil is not a word,” John was insisting, his voice rich with laughter. “That’s totally made up. Did you mean frazzle, f-r-a-z-z-l-e?”
“It is a word,” the machine insisted, its dark eyes so serious it might have been discussing the end of the world, not a silly game. She quoted the definition with exact precision: “Frazil. Tiny ice crystals formed in super-cooled waters.”
“What’s going on?” Sarah interrupted, in the same tone she might have used if she’d discovered John undressed on his bed with a girl.
“Cameron is using her Terminator super-skills to cheat at Scrabble,” John replied, smiling into the machine’s eyes.
The machine looked innocently at Sarah. “I’m not cheating. Frazil is a word. It’s in the dictionary.”
John groaned. “I forgot you read the dictionary.”
“I don’t sleep,” the machine explained. Did Sarah imagine the guilty flush on John’s skin when it said that?
He blew out a longsuffering sigh. “Yeah, well, I’m giving you ‘frazil,’ but you have to give me ‘whackadoodle.'”
“Whatever,” John grinned. “It’s a word.” He wrote down his score.
Resting one lean hip against the doorframe, Derek arched an eyebrow at Sarah. She glared at him. What was she supposed to do, tell the kid he couldn’t play Scrabble with the machine? He was flirting. He was sixteen; flirting was like breathing for him. Get over it, she said to Derek with her eyes. He looked away.
Tightly, Sarah said to John, “If you can tear yourselves away, we have some important new developments to discuss about Skynet.”
He pushed the game aside. “Let’s order pizza,” he suggested. “I think better on a full stomach.”
Soon the Connor kitchen was littered with empty Coke cans and pizza-smeared paper plates. John’s laptop had replaced the Scrabble board on the table; his fingers flew over the keyboard as he pulled up all the information available on the town of Charm Acres.
“This is weird,” he announced, staring at the screen. “According to the city records I’ve been able to access, Kaliba Group owns seventy percent of the residential property in Charm Acres. And the contractor who built the houses is a subsidiary of Kaliba Group.”
“There’s nothing necessarily sinister about that,” Derek shrugged. “That factory probably employs seventy percent of the people in that little town. So the area’s largest employer buys up a bunch of real estate and adds a nice house for cheap rent to the benefits package. Big deal.”
Sarah looked at the machine. It was seated next to John, reading over his shoulder. Maybe leaning in just a touch closer than was strictly needed. “And you’ve never heard of the Kaliba Group or Desert Canyon?” she demanded of Cameron. “There’s nothing filed away up there in your memory banks that might tell you how this relates to Skynet?”
“I’ve never heard of the Kaliba Group or Desert Canyon,” the machine responded. “But the pictures of the California Drone are similar to early prototypes of Non-Humanoid Hunter Killers.”
“HKs,” Derek translated.
“This is Skynet,” the machine confirmed.
A thrill of vindication ran through Sarah. The three dots, just something written on a wall? Apparently not.
“The Kaliba Group is international, but it’s based out of Canada, as far as I can tell,” John informed them. “That is if Kaliba isn’t just another front company for something else. There’s a lot of layers to this thing.”
He snapped his laptop shut and stood, took a page out of the printer and handed it to Sarah. “What’s this?” she asked, studying the printed photograph of a pretty woman with shoulder-length, reddish-brown hair and a saleswoman smile. It was one of those close-up, gauzy shots they did at second-rate photography studios in the mall.
“Her name is Diana Winston. She’s a real estate agent in Charm Acres,” John replied. “You want to know about a town, pretend to be moving there. Real estate agents love to gossip. Her phone number is at the bottom.”
John reached for his coat. Sarah frowned, looking from him to Cameron. “Where are you two going?”
“Cameron and I got to talking this morning, and there’s a lot more training I need to do if I’m going to be ready to fight in the future,” John answered. The machine hovered behind him, observing Sarah’s reaction. “She’s found a good spot for us to practice military maneuvers. Things we can’t do in the living room. We’re going to get started tonight.”
“Military maneuvers,” Sarah echoed doubtfully. “John, you could strip a rifle before you were six years old. What else can she possibly have to teach you?”
“How to fight machines. Whenever one attacks us, we just run away.” He turned to Derek. “But that’s not what I do in the future, is it?”
Derek’s expression said he did not want to be pulled into the middle of this mother/son squabble. Still, he admitted, “In the future, we fight them. You teach us how to fight them.”
“Which means somebody has to teach me,” John tabled.
Sarah stared hard into her son’s face, wishing she could peel away the secrets, get at the boy underneath. He’s becoming a man, her inner voice noted. You’re never going to understand him like you used to. He’s never going to confide in you like he did when he was little.
Rationally, Sarah understood this transformation had to happen. It happened to every child; at some point, they stopped needing their parents. For John, achieving that independence was even more important. Derek had been right earlier. Sooner or later, John had to stand up and fight for himself. She wouldn’t always be around to protect him.
Letting go was still hard.
Another difference in John: Instead of running away from her as fast as he could – and the boy had been pulling away for months, any fool could have seen that – he reached out and touched Sarah’s arm, responding to the pain in her eyes. “I’ll be careful, Mom,” he promised. “Try to get some sleep, okay? You do too much.”
“I do what I have to,” Sarah corrected. With a pointed look at the machine, she added, “Don’t stay out too late.”
Stake-outs were dull. Even stake-outs with gorgeous cyborgs.
“It’s getting late,” John said, as the green digital numbers on the truck’s dashboard clock rolled over to midnight. He was sprawled in the SUV’s passenger’s seat, his bare feet on the dash, tennis shoes on the floorboard, the seat pushed back as far as it would go to give him some leg room. Cameron, by contrast, sat behind the wheel in the same position she’d been in since they had pulled up in front of Riley’s foster home four hours ago.
“We should probably go home,” John continued. He suspected his mother was sitting up, waiting for them to come in. She’d been in A Mood when they’d left. John knew Sarah well enough to recognize when she wasn’t going to let something go, and this was one of those times.
“I can come back later,” Cameron offered. “After you’re asleep, I’ll come back.”
“You really think Riley will sneak out in the middle of the night?”
“There’s only one way to know.”
“Don’t you ever get tired? Or at least bored?”
“No,” Cameron said. “I don’t get tired or bored.”
She started the engine, and they drove through the quiet nighttimes streets of Riley’s neighborhood. “I felt bad lying to my mom tonight,” John admitted, staring out the window at the cookie cutter houses and well-kept lawns. “I just hope we don’t find out anything worth telling her, you know? I really don’t want Riley to be involved in all of this.”
“Do you miss her?”
John angled sideways to face Cameron, his head resting on the leather seat. The white-yellow glow of the streetlights played across her features, making her eyes even more luminous than usual. Did he detect an undercurrent of jealousy beneath that question, or was that wishful thinking?
“Sort of,” John answered. “Riley could be fun. But being with her was…stressful, too. Watching what I said. Worrying if a Terminator was going to pop up and try to wipe me out, and she’d get caught in the crossfire.” Worrying if you were going to ice her, he added silently.
“Your stress level has diminished,” Cameron noted.
John smiled to himself. He wanted to say, That has nothing to do with Riley. That has everything to do with you, but he didn’t. He was trying not to move too fast. All of this – friendship, loyalty, affection – was brand-new to Cameron. Remembering that could be difficult when his body ached for hers so badly, yet John supposed working on his self-control was a good exercise for Priority Three (becoming John Connor, bad-ass super-soldier).
A question occurred to him, and he blurted it out before he could lose his nerve. “Do you miss me, when I’m not around?”
After a moment, Cameron answered, “I notice when you’re gone.”
“That’s not the same as missing someone, though.” John tried not to be disappointed. Maybe she wasn’t programmed to miss somebody. There are limits to what she can feel, he told himself, for the hundredth time that week.
“I prefer when you’re not gone,” Cameron offered.
John’s heart started to pound. Easy, his inner voice warned. Don’t read too much into it. “That’s because of your mission, right? Because it’s easier to protect me when you’re with me?”
He was proud that he didn’t sound at all bitter about that. He was learning to accept her for who she was, too – a machine. Her brain worked differently than his. He could deal with that.
“My mission is also to stop Skynet,” Cameron reminded him. “It’s easier to do both of those things when you’re with me.”
“We do make a good team,” John observed with a smile.
They had pulled into the driveway of their rented house. Cameron killed the engine and turned to look at him. “Do you miss me, when I’m not around?”
John had the sense that all the air had been sucked out of the car, and he had to work to breathe evenly. Before Sideways Universe, he would have told her no. Only, he’d decided not to lie to Cameron anymore. Perhaps he wouldn’t tell her everything, but he wasn’t going to lie.
“Yes,” he said, softly. “When you’re not with me, I miss you.”
She gave him one of those beautifully sad half-smiles that haunted his dreams. Shifting her body so she was facing him, she laid her head back against the seat, too, and they gazed at one another. The temperature inside the car heated up about ten degrees – at least to John’s perspective.
“You look tired,” Cameron told him.
Her fingers twitched. He thought at first it was her hand malfunctioning again; then he realized she had started to reach for him and had stopped herself. He recalled how they’d strolled home from the mini-golf course together, hand-in-hand. She was programmed to learn human behavior. He’d held her hand once. It was only natural that she would assume this was something they might do now.
Or maybe she wanted to touch him. He definitely wanted to touch her.
John picked Cameron’s hand up off the seat and laced their fingers together. He was pushing the limits of his self-control, and he knew it, yet that didn’t stop him from scooting an inch nearer to her, yearning to be close enough to smell her, to breathe her in. “Today was a nice day,” he murmured. “Thanks for hanging out with me.”
“I beat you at Scrabble,” she said.
The pride in her voice made John chuckle. “You kicked my ass at Scrabble,” he corrected her. “We’re going to have to find a game I can beat you at.”
Well, that came out far more suggestively than he’d intended. John swallowed hard. He couldn’t stop looking at her mouth. He couldn’t stop wishing she would close the small distance between them. Just one kiss. What he would have given for just one soft, slow, sweet kiss.
He shivered, licked his lips. “We’ve got a big day tomorrow. We should-we should go inside.” He hadn’t been lying about training with Cameron. Not entirely. The plan was to start first thing in the morning.
“John.” Cameron breathed his name. The sound of it nearly burned him alive. Was it possible to want someone as much as he wanted her?
He slid another inch closer. A few more centimeters and his mouth would be against hers. John’s heart beat percussively in his veins: ba-bomp, ba-bomp, ba-bomp. “Yeah?”
The porch light snapped on, and Sarah stepped outside, glaring at the SUV. She looked seriously pissed.
Perfect timing, Mom, John thought sourly. He wondered if she’d been spying on them from the living room window.
Sighing, John scooted away from Cameron. Sarah’s presence had definitively killed the mood.
“Your mother looks upset,” Cameron said. “Do you think she knows we lied to her?”
“No. This is other stuff. Don’t worry about it,” John added kindly, as he opened the car door. “It’s between me and my mom. Nobody’s mad at you.”
In case that sort of thing upset her. He didn’t know for sure, but just in case, he didn’t want her prowling the house all night wondering how she’d disappointed Sarah again. John had suffered through plenty of sleepless nights wondering that very thing.
“That looked cozy,” Sarah said frostily to John, as he and Cameron climbed the porch steps. She stared at their entwined fingers. “You guys hold hands now?”
Before Sideways Universe, John would have made some clipped, bratty remark, like, You don’t understand anything, and stormed upstairs. Now, he looked her straight in the eye and, without a trace of petulance, said calmly, “Yes, we hold hands now. We’re friends.”
Sarah gaped after him as John led Cameron into the house. At the foot of the stairs, he released her fingers, said, “See you tomorrow,” and continued on to his room, smiling a private smile his mother wouldn’t have understood at all.
Sarah was going to have to come to terms with how he felt about “the machine,” as she called her. John wasn’t giving either of them up – Sarah or Cameron. He needed them both.