Desert Canyon Heat and Air was at the end of the dirt road.
Parked a safe distance away, Sarah and Derek had watched the windowless warehouse for nearly two hours. Finally, as the sun sank into the burning horizon, they made their way back to the Connor household, where the scent of Sarah’s meatloaf drifted out the open kitchen windows.
John had his laptop open on the kitchen table and was forking small bites of meatloaf into his mouth without taking his eyes off the screen. Derek immediately dished up a generous helping onto a paper plate and headed out the back door in the direction of the garage. “Where are you going?” Sarah called after him. “We just got back.”
“Recon,” Derek replied, over his shoulder.
Sarah frowned at his back. What are you up to, Reese? She made a mental note to start keeping better tabs on John’s uncle.
While she ate, Sarah filled John in on what they’d discovered in the desert. He was extremely interested in the photos of the Drones from the UFO convention. “You think the Heat and Air warehouse is a cover for designing these?” he asked.
“Could be. I’ll go back to the warehouse in the morning, see what there is to see.” Sarah stood and stretched. “I’m tired. I think I’ll take a shower and go to bed.”
John leaned back in his chair. “Before you go, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Arranging her best I’m-your-mother-you-can-tell-me-anything expression into place, Sarah said calmly, “Go on.”
“I broke up with Riley today.”
“That’s good,” Sarah answered automatically.
At the same time thinking, Is it?
Wasn’t this what she’d wanted, because the girl was such an x-factor in their lives, and because if she got hurt, it would mean more pain for John? Yes, Sarah decided, this was what she’d wanted. This was a good development.
Yet she couldn’t shake the feeling that John’s abrupt about-face on the Riley issue had something to do with the machine.
“I just thought you should know,” John shrugged. “She won’t be coming around anymore.”
“Are you okay?” Sarah hated for John to be so alone. The girl had been all wrong for him, but still. He was a teenager. How well she remembered her own teenage crushes – those desperate first lunges at love. So much she wanted to give to her son, so much life she wanted him to experience, but it simply wasn’t safe.
“It was kind of awkward, but no big scenes or anything. I’ll be all right.”
Another difference: John wasn’t looking at her accusingly, like he had given up Riley on her say-so, one more piece of a normal life denied to him by his tyrannical mother. His expression was calm, almost pleasant.
“I know you really liked her,” Sarah pressed. Why was she pushing this? Why couldn’t she just let the kid make an adult decision and leave it at that?
“I did,” John agreed. He went back to his computer screen, tapping away at the keyboard, drifting away into his own inscrutable world once more.
“You were right, you know,” he said, stopping Sarah as she took a step toward the stairs. “It wasn’t going to work with me and Riley. I’m sorry I caused such a big upset over the whole thing, honestly. It’s not like we don’t have enough stress around here without me being a brat.”
Sarah’s mouth dropped open. She managed to get her expression under control before John looked up at her. “You’re not a brat,” she told him.
“Sometimes I am.”
“Okay, sometimes you are.” Sarah smiled tentatively, searching his face. “What’s going on with you, John? You seem…different.”
“I feel different. Clearer. Maybe that’s what getting whapped on the head does for you.”
“Clearer about what?”
“Lots of things.”
Meaning the machine? “What’d you and Cameron do today?”
If John found the change of subject abrupt, he didn’t let on. “We played mini-golf.”
Sarah waited for him to laugh. He didn’t. “You’re joking, right?” she said dubiously.
His mouth quirked up into a grin so like his father’s, it momentarily stole Sarah’s breath. “No, I’m not joking. What?” he challenged, his grin widening at whatever he saw in her face – astonishment, horror, outrage. “You went to a UFO convention to search for a computer program that destroys the world. I taught a Terminator to play putt-putt golf. These are the days of our lives.”
It was an old joke between them, a corny line from a stupid soap opera, something they used to say when the world got too crazy around them. When they’d been darting from anonymous city to anonymous town, always looking over their shoulders, waiting for either the past or the future to catch up to them. They hadn’t referenced it in years.
Sarah started to laugh. Once she started, she couldn’t stop. John joined in, slowly at first, but soon he was doubled over at the table, holding his sides, and Sarah was leaning against the doorframe, weak with laughter, drunk with laughter.
“What’s so funny?”
The machine floated down the stairs. Sarah wiped her eyes. John straightened, his lips twitching. She waited for him to make some off-handed, dismissive remark to the machine, like, Nothing, you wouldn’t get it. She waited for him to close down, as he was so careful to do around the machine when Sarah was there, as though he feared she might suspect how much he cared for the cyborg.
John did none of those things. Instead, his smile widened, drawing the machine into their circle of happiness like an embrace. “I was telling Mom what a good day we had,” he said.
The machine crossed to his side. It looked Sarah in the eye and reported, “Yes. We had fun.”
“Well, that’s…good.” Sarah was suddenly exhausted. Whether that was the long day in the desert heat or the near-hysterical laughing fit or weeks with almost no sleep, she couldn’t say. “I’m going to bed,” she announced. To John, she added, “Don’t stay up too late.”
“I won’t. I’m going to do some more research on this Desert Canyon company. Maybe we’ll get lucky and I’ll find a solid lead for you and Derek to track down tomorrow.”
The not-so-subtle hint was not lost on Sarah: John expected her to partner up with his uncle again tomorrow. Pretending she had a choice in the matter, Sarah said, “Yeah, it seems like a two-man kind of job.”
John surprised her again by getting up and folding her in a swift hug. “Love you, Mom,” he said, as he stepped back.
“I love you, John,” Sarah said. She touched his cheek. So handsome, she thought. Just like his father.
Sarah drug her aching feet up the stairs, glancing back at John once. She wondered if every mother woke one day to discover her child had suddenly grown up.
John bounced down the stairs the next morning around ten. He’d been up past three researching Desert Canyon Heat and Air, which as far as he could tell from the poking around he’d done online – this included hacking into bank accounts and employee personnel records – was a subsidiary of a subsidiary of a subsidiary of the Kaliba Group. Even in a global marketplace, it smelled wrong, like somebody was trying really hard to cover their tracks. He’d stacked a sheaf of print-outs about Kaliba on the kitchen counter for his mother and Derek; the papers were gone now, as was his uncle’s new truck. The house was quiet.
John’s own plan for the day was still amorphous. Before he’d fallen into bed the previous night, he’d asked Cameron to follow Riley to school, to be sure that’s really where she was going during the day. They would begin their stakeout tonight, when Riley might be doing something more interesting than sitting in homeroom. John was still trying to think up an excuse to give his mom for where the two of them were going for the evening. Gut instinct warned him not to tell Sarah his suspicions about Riley just yet. She had this new lead to hunt down in the desert; she needed to focus on that.
Cameron wasn’t in the house, so John wandered out to the garage – where he found her with her arm sliced open. “What did that to you?” he demanded, his stomach rolling. Blood didn’t bother John. He just hated to see Cameron injured.
“I did that to me.” Cameron turned big, sad eyes on him. “I killed a bird.”
A flash of Sideways Universe came back to John: Cameron Phillips had been sent to Pescadero for snapping birds’ necks. He shuddered.
“What bird? The one from the chimney?”
“I thought you should know. Look.” Cameron motioned him over to the worktable, and John looked down into the amazing moving parts that comprised the arm of her endoskeleton.
“The bird experienced an involuntary movement of my fingers,” she went on.
Translation: She’d crushed it.
“It was fragile,” Cameron added softly.
She regrets killing the bird, John realized. He smiled to let her know it was okay. “You know, once, when I was a little kid, we were living next door to this old woman who raised baby chickens on her back porch.”
Cameron fixed her gaze on him, utterly absorbed in his story – another endearing trait of hers, how she seemed to hang on his every word.
“I always wanted to hold one, because they were so soft and fluffy-looking, but my mom told me not to,” John recalled. “One day I was out there by myself on the porch, and I reached into the coop and picked up this teeny-tiny baby chicken. It moved, and it startled me. I threw it across the room.”
He paused, remembering the awful smack as the baby bird had hit the wall. “I killed it.”
“Did you feel bad?”
“I cried for a week. My point is,” he looked deep into her eyes, “accidents happen.”
Cameron nodded solemnly. “I understand.”
A long, charged moment passed between them. John had his hand on the back of her chair, and she had her chin tilted up so she could look at him, and suddenly the garage felt very small and very warm. John cleared his throat, tearing his eyes away from hers.
“Wiggle your fingers,” he commanded.
Cameron complied. The longest metal cylinder inside her wrist responded sluggishly, catching three-quarters of the way up; her fingers stiffened, clenching almost into a fist, and she struggled to relax them. “There’s damage,” John told her, “but it’s buried pretty deep in there.”
“I don’t know how it happened.”
“It was probably during a fight. You’re not designed to fight other machines.” John had always hated watching Cameron fight Terminators. His mother and Derek, of course, didn’t seem to care that the Terminator had been built to kill humans, not cyborgs. She could be hurt. She was hurt, and the only thing John could think about was fixing her.
“Maybe I could swap this out, but it’s not like we just have spare parts lying around,” he muttered.
Cameron stood and slipped past him. Her hair brushed his shoulder, smelling sweetly of her shampoo – lilac and honeysuckle, a heady combination. John watched her sort through the cardboard boxes stacked underneath the homeowners’ collection of old boardgames until she found what she wanted: fragments of a Terminator’s endoskeleton.
How often do you lie? he had asked her once.
When my mission requires it, she’d said.
He stared at the machine components, unable to name the feelings coursing through him. Anger? Hurt? Betrayal? Terror? “You’re supposed to burn the endos,” he said, tonelessly.
Shame-faced, Cameron returned to her seat at the worktable. “I have damage to my hand,” she mumbled. “And now you’re able to fix it.”
John sifted through the Terminator parts, mulling that over. Of course she had to anticipate injuries. She got beat to hell on a regular basis. If something essential was broken – like her hand – they couldn’t just send away for a new piece from the manufacturer. She couldn’t complete her mission if she couldn’t fight. It’s like keeping a first-aid kit around, John reasoned, but for cyborgs.
And he felt like a jack-ass for not thinking of it himself, for making her sneak around to take measures to secure her own well-being.
He carried the pieces over to the table. Her eyes scanned his face. He could tell she was wondering what he was thinking, if he was angry. “We won’t tell Mom,” he said, and Cameron’s shoulders relaxed.
Gently, John flattened Cameron’s fingers on the table and set to work. It was a delicate operation, requiring a surgeon’s skill. While John worked, he talked.
“You know how I told you about the role Agent Ellison played in my dream? How he was supposedly the FBI agent who rescued me from my kidnapper?”
“Well,” John bit his lip as he carefully unscrewed a hinge-joint at her elbow, “I’ve been thinking. If my dream really had meaning, or if I was looking into some alternate reality, then maybe my mom was too quick to send Ellison away down in Mexico. Maybe he’s supposed to help us. To be a part of what we’re doing here.”
“You want to go talk to him.”
One of the many, many things John liked about Cameron was how well she understood his thought process. It meant they could skip most of the explanations and get right down to the action. “Do you think it’s a good idea?” he asked her.
“Normally I would advise against bringing more people in on the mission,” Cameron said, giving John the impression she was working out her answer as she spoke. “But James Ellison already knows about Skynet. He has access to law enforcement databases. He could be an asset.”
“My thoughts exactly.” John slid the new cylinder into place inside her forearm. “Okay,” he placed his palm over hers, “clench your fist.”
Cameron hesitated. “I killed the bird,” she reminded him. “I might hurt your hand.”
“You’re not going to hurt me. Clench your fist.”
She folded her fingers over the back of his hand. John’s heart did a funny little bump-bump-bop in his chest. They were both staring at her hand, carefully not looking at one another.
“Okay,” he said, his voice a bit huskier, “now, fingers straight.” She released him. He smiled, pleased with his handiwork. “Okay. Do you feel any different?”
“Are you all fixed?”
“I don’t know.”
The way she said it tore at John’s heart. He left his hand on top of hers, rubbed a small circle in the center of her palm with his thumb. What made her so sad sometimes? He wanted to wrap his arms around her and tell her she was beautiful and special and perfect, that she didn’t need to worry about being damaged – they were both damaged, and it didn’t matter, not to him. Not anymore.
“You’re ahead of schedule.”
Puzzled lines creased John’s forehead. “With what?”
“What you need to learn.”
Cameron’s words struck somewhere deep inside John. All at once he had the oddest sense of déjà vu. Have we played this scene out before, in some other reality? he wondered. Hastily, he shook those thoughts off. He had to live in the world he was in right now.
But it wasn’t only the déjà vu that gave John pause. Another thought occurred to him, and he cocked his head at her, considering. “You’re designed for self-repair,” he mused. “Was fixing your arm some kind of test?”
A barely perceptible hesitation. “Yes.”
She seemed taken aback when he didn’t explode with indignant rage. I’ve gotten so good at being a jerk to her, John thought, with a stab of regret. It’s what she’s come to expect.
Kindly, he told her, “If there are things you need to teach me, if there are things I need to learn, all you have to do is say.”
“There are things I can teach you,” Cameron responded steadily. “There are things you need to learn.”
“Okay. But tomorrow,” John decided. He gathered up his tools while Cameron pressed the folds of skin along her inner arm back together. “Right now I’m going to visit Ellison.”
“He may be upset with us.”
That was an understatement. The last time John and Cameron had dropped in on Ellison, she’d smashed him and his living room up pretty good. At the time, they’d suspected Ellison had been the one to dig up Cromartie’s body in Mexico.
“Maybe you should stay in the car,” John suggested.
“I understand,” Cameron said. They were halfway out the door when she asked, “Will we hang out later?”
A smile lit John’s face. He picked up a dust-covered version of Scrabble from the pile of boardgames the Terminator endoskeleton had been buried beneath. “Absolutely we’ll hang out,” he assured her. “I’ll teach you a new game.”
Judging from what John had found in his Internet research, Desert Canyon Heat and Air was owned and operated by the Kaliba Group, a foreign company that, in Sarah’s opinion, reeked of Skynet.
By midday, she and Derek had been camped outside the windowless warehouse on the dead-end dirt road for four hours. Sarah sipped lukewarm coffee from a thermos and watched Derek watching the warehouse. He hadn’t come in until dawn again this morning, just enough time to grab a quick shower before they’d headed out to the desert. In the close quarters of the truck, she detected the faintest hint of Chanel No. 5 on his leather jacket.
Derek Reese had spent the night with a woman.
“Who is she?”
Derek didn’t react. “Who is who?”
“The woman whose perfume I can smell.”
“I did recon in a bar last night. Lots of women in bars. Lots of different perfumes.”
It was a good answer, but too practiced. Sarah’s super-acute bullshit radar went off. “Which one of them did you leave with? Come on, Reese. We’re both adults here. So you went home with a woman. What’s the big deal?”
“Okay, I went home with a woman.” Derek lowered the binoculars. “As long as we’re sharing, mind if I ask why John suddenly dumped his girlfriend?”
“Because he came to his senses,” Sarah answered waspishly.
She knew where Derek was going with that – John and the machine. She wasn’t in the mood to revisit that well-trod ground. She was hot and tired and hungry, and bored with staring at a warehouse that hadn’t seen any activity since a vanload of employees had been dumped off out front at seven-thirty that morning.
“He’s acting more like John Connor.” Derek sounded pleased by that. He must have seen by Sarah’s expression that she wasn’t, for he insisted, “He has to stop hiding behind your skirts sometime, you know.”
She suppressed the urge to punch him, with some effort. “Thanks for the reminder that I’m not around to protect him in the future,” she grated out.
Derek blanched. “God, Sarah, I didn’t mean – ”
“Look.” Sarah sat forward, their spat instantly forgotten. The warehouse door had opened; a man with long, scraggly hair, wearing a baseball cap and a gray uniform, emerged. He climbed into the van that had arrived earlier that day.
“Follow him,” Sarah ordered. “But not too close. We don’t want him to make us.”
Rolling his eyes, Derek muttered, “I know how to tail somebody, for Christ’s sake.”
They tracked the van mostly by the cloud of dust it kicked up on the empty highway. Sarah stared out the window at the barren redness whipping past, trying to picture a day when the whole world would look like this – bleached, lifeless. Overrun by machines. Kyle Reese had tried to describe it to her, yet she’d never been able to fathom it. She supposed the living could not imagine hell.
“The woman,” Sarah said after several silent miles. “What’s her name?”
“Why are you so interested in my love life?”
“You love her now?” Sarah jumped on that. “I thought she was some random woman you picked up in a bar.”
“I was using a polite euphemism,” Derek retorted. “Let me rephrase. Why are you so interested in who I’m screwing?”
Pushing her hair behind her ears, Sarah replied, “Because she might not be who you think she is. Skynet has all kinds of infiltrators.”
“I’d know if I was screwing a machine.”
“Maybe not a machine. People work for Skynet, too. Some of them know they do, some of them don’t.”
“Which kind of people do you suppose this Kaliba Group is?”
He was evading her question. Sarah allowed it – for the moment. “Hard to say. Probably some arrogant group of men who think they’re creating something because they’ve figured out how to blow the world up a hundred times over.”
Turning off the highway at a sign that read Charm Acres: A Happy Place to Live!, Derek observed, “You’ve got a real problem with men, don’t you?”
“Not all men. John’s dad was all right.”
Immediately, Sarah wished she hadn’t said that. She didn’t want Derek to interpret the off-handed remark as an opening to ask questions about John’s father. Derek Reese had no clue he was John’s uncle, and if Future-John hadn’t trusted him with that information, Sarah didn’t feel it was her place to, either.
But Derek let it go, either because he recognized she didn’t want to talk about it or because they had arrived in Charm Acres. “There’s the van,” he said.
Sure enough, the Desert Canyon Heat and Air van was parked outside a picturesque suburban home on a picturesque suburban street. The McCarthys, said the name on the mailbox. Sarah read it as Derek slowly drove by.
“What do you want to do?” he asked her.
It was early afternoon. Sarah was sick of being in the truck and worried about what John and the machine might be up to. “Let’s go home,” she said. “We’ll all sit down together and see if we can’t figure out what the hell this little town has to do with Skynet.”