Chapter 1

Changes

Setting: Begins immediately after my story Blackout, which took place during Season 2 at the conclusion of “Self-made Man.”

Part I

John left the hospital a different person than he had been prior to the accident.

The changes weren’t outwardly visible. He was still the same thin, good-looking boy with an impossibly soft smile, short sandy hair, and haunted blue-green eyes. Eyes that made you trust him, that made you want to protect him. But Sarah Connor knew her son, better than he imagined. She knew something had changed.

She wasn’t sure what, exactly, though she suspected it had something to do with the machine.

The difference in John made itself felt in the Connor household the morning after he was discharged with a week’s worth of antibiotics and instructions to return in ten days to have the seventeen stitches in his scalp removed. Sarah was in the kitchen making pancakes when John strolled in, Cameron so close behind him she immediately wondered whose room the machine had spent the night in.

“Morning,” John greeted his mother. He kissed her temple. Another change to catalog: John had a sweetness to him, something no amount of trauma had been able to quash, yet neither mother nor son were normally demonstrative in their affections. It was hard to hug when holding a gun.

“Good morning,” Sarah said back. She handed him a plate of pancakes. He took a seat at the table, the machine gliding over to sit across from him. Its watchful dark eyes scanned the yard beyond the windows, vigilant as always.

“What’s on the agenda for today?” John asked. He slathered his pancakes in so much syrup Sarah feared for his teeth.

“I’m going to a UFO convention.”

She said it with a straight face, deadpan, then grinned at John’s dumbfounded expression. “You’re joking, right?”

“No. Not joking.” Sarah handed him a brochure for the convention, something she’d uncovered online – she was getting better and better at using the computer, though the machine still freaked her out, especially when it remembered which websites she’d visited, like it had a tiny brain inside keeping tabs on her movements. “I found it while I was researching the three dots.”

“You were on the Internet?” John sounded impressed – and mildly amazed. “Maybe I should get conked on the head more often. Might spur you into the digital age.”

Sarah snapped his shoulder with a dishtowel, and he laughed. Another difference, at least from the past several months: John laughing.

“So I’ll see you when I get home,” Sarah said, reaching for her bag. “I may be late. I left a meatloaf in the fridge, top shelf. Just put it in the oven for an hour.”

“You should take Derek.”

If John had said, Are you sure it’s safe to go alone?, Sarah wouldn’t have blinked. Her son worried about her; she understood this, loved him for it, worried it would one day get him killed. But he hadn’t simply implied that she might need back-up. He had given her…

Well, he had given her an order. And his charming grin didn’t override the fact that it was an order.

Another difference: John did not give Sarah orders. Nobody gave Sarah orders.

“I can handle myself,” Sarah said, bristling.

“I know,” John returned evenly. “But you think these three dots are related to Skynet, and if you find something out there in the desert, you should have backup. Besides,” he added, “Derek’s been off on his own a lot lately. It wouldn’t hurt for you to get to know each other better.”

His comment struck Sarah as layered with meaning. Reese has made himself scarce these last few months, Sarah realized. Another difference: John picking up on his uncle’s odd behavior, while she’d been too absorbed with the three dots to notice.

She needed to get it together. She needed a good night’s sleep. The machine freaked her out. She hated imagining it creeping around the halls while John slept, possibly about to blow another gasket and go nuclear on them again. Possibly thinking thoughts about her son that made Sarah want to rip its chip out and stomp it into scrap metal.

The machine was looking from Sarah to John now, as though it too sensed a change on the wind. “Fine,” Sarah said tightly, because she couldn’t think of a way to refuse Derek’s company without seeming petty. “I’ll call him.”

“No need.” Derek appeared in the doorway. The purple-black circles under his pretty blue eyes told her he hadn’t seen his bed last night. He needed a shave, too. “Where are we going?”

John handed him the brochure as he passed to rinse his empty plate in the sink. “UFO convention,” John informed him, with a sardonic grin. “Mom’s found a lead.”

Part II

Deciding to embrace your destiny had an oddly liberating effect on a person, John was realizing.

He listened to his uncle’s truck pull out of the drive while he stripped down and stepped into the shower. He hummed to himself as he stood under the hot spray – “All Star” by Smashmouth, the last song he’d heard on the radio before jumping from 1999 to 2007. He even smiled a little, feeling free as a bird.

Cameron was sitting on his bed when John walked into his room, a towel around his waist. He flushed to the roots of his hair. “Uh, could you turn around?” he said.

In his mind, he pictured Sideways Universe, the weird dreamscape (or possible alternate reality, he couldn’t decide which) that he’d ventured into during his sixteen-hour coma. He saw Cameron’s dark eyes burning into his as she eased his shirt off over his head…

Stop right there, his brain commanded. Unless he wanted to explain to her why he needed another shower right away, he was not going to think about being naked with Cameron.

Cameron turned toward the window while John threw on jeans and a T-shirt, moving so fast he nearly toppled over sideways. “Okay, I’m decent,” he told her, and she turned back to face him.

He thought he saw a glint of amusement in her dark eyes. Damn, he loved those little too-human touches about her.

At one time, such thoughts would have sent John into a downward spiral of shame and guilt. Shame, because Cameron was a machine and his mother had taught him to hate the machines; guilt, because caring for Cameron felt like a betrayal of his mission to stop Judgment Day and save the world from Skynet. Since leaving Sideways Universe, however, John had gotten his priorities straight.

Priority One: Don’t get killed.

Priority Two: Save the girl. (Meaning Cameron, of course.)

Priority Three: Become John Connor, the bad-ass super-soldier who would lead the human Resistance in the future.

To accomplish all of that, John had decided he needed to embrace his feelings for Cameron. Future-John trusted her, confided in her, needed her. Since Sideways Universe, he’d been thinking that maybe the reason Cameron was so different from every other machine was because his future-self had decided to treat her like a human being. To teach her about love, and friendship, and compassion, and respect. He just had to remember to take things slow. The fact that he was in love with her didn’t mean she would ever be able to feel that in return. She was a machine. What she could feel, in the deepest sense, would always be limited.

Getting his heart broken wasn’t on John’s list of Things To Do.

“Where are we going today?” Cameron asked him brightly, breaking into his reverie.

John realized he’d been staring at her and blushed again. “I have something to take care of,” he said. “I need to talk to Riley.”

“I’m sure she’s been very worried about you since the car accident.”

Did he imagine the tension in her voice when she said that? Was it jealousy, or simple concern for his well-being – her conviction that Riley was a threat to him coming to the surface?

She’s a mystery, John thought. Like every beautiful woman in the history of the world, even if she was built in a Skynet factory.

Before Sideways Universe, John would have told himself not to care whether Cameron was hurt by his relationship with Riley. Now, he walked over to her, hands shoved in his pockets to help him withstand the temptation to touch her lovely face, and looked deep into her eyes. “I’m breaking up with Riley,” he told her.

Cameron blinked. Processing the information, John guessed, searching her memory banks for the words “break-up.” She tilted her head to the side. “Why?”

“Because you were right. Because I bring danger into Riley’s life.” John swallowed hard. “And because I think she might be keeping something from me.”

These were dangerous waters, and John knew it. If Cameron had proof – or even a strong suspicion – that Riley was more than an amorphous threat, that she was somehow connected to Skynet, she would kill her. John didn’t want Riley to die. He felt stupid and selfish for having embroiled her in this mess to begin with. When she’d approached him that day at school, he should have told her to get lost. He hadn’t been thinking clearly. He’d been so bound up over killing that gangster, he’d been grasping at any semblance of normalcy life offered.

Except Riley had never been normal. He’d suspected, from that first afternoon, when she’d used weird phrases like “carrots and apples,” that she wasn’t everything she seemed on the surface. Maybe if his mom hadn’t reacted so negatively to her presence in John’s life he would have broken things off with Riley a long time ago. John was still a teenage boy. Rules could be confining, and everything with his mother was rules, rules, rules.

Besides, John Connor was the ultimate revolutionary. Rebellion was in his blood.

Cameron was digesting the information about Riley while those thoughts chased through John’s head. “You think she’s lying to you,” Cameron stated.

“I don’t know,” John admitted. “I’m asking you to let me find out before we do anything…extreme.”

“But you’re breaking up with her. Doesn’t that mean you don’t want her around anymore?”

He sighed. We still have a long way to go on this human thing, he thought.

“Breaking up with somebody doesn’t mean you want them to die,” John told Cameron patiently. “Even if Riley is holding something back, it might not have anything to do with Skynet. She could just be some messed-up kid with a past she doesn’t like talking about.”

Which didn’t explain why she hadn’t insisted on an explanation for what had happened in Mexico, being chased by a psychokiller and rescued by a retired FBI agent, but John didn’t think it wise to press that point with Cameron.

“And anyway, she’s still a person, not a machine. Taking a life isn’t something I can do lightly.”

“I can,” Cameron said, with the air of a star pupil announcing that she could work a particularly difficult math problem.

“Yeah, well, I wish you couldn’t,” John said. “You value my life. Everybody’s life is that important.”

Cameron frowned at him. “No, it’s not. You’re John Connor.”

“You’re not understanding me.” John ran a hand through his hair. “Remember when you said you wouldn’t have killed that turtle back in Mexico?” Cameron nodded. “You said it wasn’t much of a threat. You said cyborgs aren’t built to be cruel. Killing is cruel. Even if you do it fast and painless, it’s still cruel to end someone’s life. Nobody wants to die.”

She accepted that. “But sometimes we have to kill,” she said, rather questioningly, as if she wasn’t sure he would agree with that.

“Yes,” John confirmed. “Sometimes we have to kill.”

“If you’re not going to kill Riley, do you want me to come with you to break up with her?”

He laughed. Not because breaking up with Riley was funny – John didn’t enjoy hurting people, and he couldn’t help feeling he was abandoning Riley – but because Cameron looked so ridiculously cute right then, her face as earnest as he’d ever seen it. “I can handle this one on my own,” he said. “But we’ll hang out when I get back, all right?”

“Hang out?” Cameron echoed.

He picked his leather jacket up off the pile of dirty laundry in the corner and smiled at her over his shoulder, letting her see the warmth in his eyes, the real affection. “Yeah. Hang out. You ever play miniature golf?”

A spark of interest lit up her dark eyes. “No. It’s not part of my mission.”

“Mini-golf is a valuable skill to develop,” John insisted, with mock solemnity. “I’ll teach you. But you have to promise to let me a win once in a while.”

Part III

The UFO convention was a freak show.

Okay, that was mean. Sarah believed in killer robots from the future and an impending nuclear apocalypse; generally speaking, she was superbly tolerant of other people’s beliefs, no matter how whacked-out. In fact, she often found the homeless guy who stood on the corner haranguing passerby about the demons living in the sewers less insane than the millions of people who went through their lives everyday blithely convinced that the world around them would go on just as it was forever. People with the arrogance to build machines that would one day take over the world, because they were supremely convinced of mankind’s superiority over technology.

But the UFO convention was madness of an order Sarah hadn’t experienced since leaving Pescadero. She and Derek wandered past booth after booth advertising hypnotherapy regression, thermal blankets to protect against alien body scans, devices that resembled pagers which reportedly could detect a probe implanted anywhere in the human body. The air stank of desperation. Sarah was more appalled by the exhibitioners than she was by the conventioneers: Most of these people sincerely believed Earth had been visited by beings from other planets, and the salesmen hocking their ridiculous wares were preying on those beliefs. It made her angry.

Derek didn’t improve her mood. He skulked behind her, clearly dubious about the three dots. I don’t have to explain myself to you, she wanted to say to him, only that would have been a kind of explaining.

“Metal,” he said suddenly.

Sarah stopped short. At a booth in the far corner, a replica of a Terminator arm stood on a pedestal in front of a banner that read The California Drones.

They wandered over, acting casual, though Sarah’s heart was pounding. She suddenly realized she hadn’t actually expected to find anything here. The three dots…She knew how crazy it sounded. She wondered sometimes if she really was losing her mind, if the stress of the last sixteen years (technically twenty-four, but she’d jumped over eight of them, including the one that contained her own death) wasn’t finally catching up to her. Yet here it was. Proof of Skynet at a UFO convention.

She resisted the juvenile urge to stick her tongue out at Derek and say, Told you so, Reese.

“What’s all this?” she asked of the short, balding man with wire-rimmed glasses who was manning the booth, which seemed to be receiving less than its fair share of attention.

She aimed for a politely curious tone, but the man seemed to read something in her face – a tightness around her eyes, perhaps, where her smile didn’t quite reach. “Have you seen the Drones?” he inquired.

“No,” Sarah answered honestly. “What are they?”

“Lights in the sky,” the man replied. “Citizens in southern California spotted mysterious spacecraft flying overhead, and one of them managed to snap these photos.”

He pointed to a series of grainy photographs tacked to a cheap bulletin board behind him. They showed what might have been the underbelly of a fighter jet with three glowing lights shining down at the camera, causing such a glare it was impossible to make out anything about the surrounding landscape aside from a few telephone lines in the foreground. It could have been a backyard, an Interstate highway, a parking lot.

A sound stage, her cynical voice said.

“A guy named Abraham posted these online,” the man was saying of the pictures. “Blogged a couple of times, claimed to be working for some super-secret corporation – probably a black ops branch of the government – designing state-of-the-art weapons. Then he just disappeared. The Drones were spotted twice by different people after Abraham posted his photos. Then…nothing.” He opened his arms expansively to illustrate the point of nothing.

Derek jerked his thumb toward the metal arm, which, Sarah saw up-close, had been constructed of tin-foil and pipe-cleaners spray-painted silver. “What’s with the robot parts?”

“Abraham posted a diagram of that on his blog,” the man said. “He said he was working with some kind of metal he’d never even heard of, and the guy was a seriously well-educated engineer, judging from his tech-speak.” The man fished around in his pocket and came up with a wrinkled business card. It had a web address printed at the bottom. “That’s my website. I’ve archived Abraham’s blogs and photos there, since the original site was wiped clean about three weeks after the last post.”

“Do you have copies of those pictures?” Sarah asked.

The man handed her a stack of print-outs. “Happy searching,” he smiled. “Let me know if you figure out where the sights occurred. My contact info is on the card.”

“Might as well paint a target on his back,” Derek muttered, following Sarah back to the truck. “I give it three days before Skynet blasts him.”

Sarah climbed into the passenger’s seat. “Skynet isn’t going to start offing crazy people nobody listens to. They do that, they give them credibility.”

“Good point.” Derek started the engine. “So where to now?”

“Just drive around,” Sarah instructed, studying the photos.

“You’re the boss.”

She thought about how John had behaved in the kitchen that morning, how much he had changed seemingly overnight. She wasn’t so sure who was in charge anymore.

Next Chapter

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