Sarah twisted the diamond on her ring-finger. Derek glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. “Stop fidgeting,” he said. “You’re going to give us away.”
“Newlyweds fidget with their wedding rings,” Sarah shot back. “I used to see it, when I was a waitress. Young couples would come in, and the girl just couldn’t stop staring at her hand.” Like she hadn’t been able to when Charlie Dixon had popped the question to her…
Sighing, Derek guided Sarah up the sidewalk to the big white house with a For Sale sign staked in the freshly-mown lawn. “I still say we should just break into the warehouse, see what they’re building out there in the desert,” he grumped.
“And if it’s a bunch of Terminators to go with those Drone things?” Sarah demanded, pitching her voice low in case any neighbors were listening behind the bushes. “Walking into an army of T-triple-eights might ruin our whole day, Reese.”
His shoulders tensed. “What?” Sarah challenged, lifting her chin. “Do you think I’m being crazy again, like I was about the three dots?”
“No, it’s…It’s nothing. Now smile,” Derek ordered, cutting off further argument. “We’re newlyweds. We’re crazy in love, remember?”
He rang the bell, and the auburn-haired woman from the Internet photo opened it with her best you-want-to-buy-a-house-from-me smile. “Derek! Sarah! So good to meet you in person. I’m Diana.”
They shook hands as Diana Winston ushered them into the entryway. Light spilled through big, beveled windows on either side of the front door, illuminating white-washed walls and blonde-wood floors. “You’re lucky we actually have a property open,” the real estate agent went on. “Not a lot of people leave our little town.”
Derek and Sarah exchanged a look. That had sounded a bit ominous.
“What brings you to Charm Acres, if I may ask?” Diana inquired brightly.
Sarah fielded that one. “We just got married, and we’re tired of the rat-race in the city. We want something a little quieter.”
Diana smiled warmly. “Newlyweds, that’s so lovely.” She looked expectantly at Sarah, who extended her left hand to display the diamond. Derek had brought it home from his “reconnaissance” last night; Sarah hadn’t asked where it came from. It was gorgeous, though, a serious rock. She could see Diana calculating how much commission she was going to make off this sale. Sarah and Derek Webster plainly had money to spend.
“Charm Acres is a wonderful place to raise a family,” Diana told them. “We have hardly any crime. Are you planning on starting a family?”
“My wife already has a son,” Derek put in. “From her first marriage. But I think of him as mine.”
A real smile touched Sarah’s lips. Derek loved John, and John loved Derek. Perhaps they were more like brothers than father and son, but rough around the edges as he was, she believed Derek was a good influence on John. A source of strength. A reminder of why they were fighting.
Diana took them on a tour of the house. Sarah and Derek played easily off one another, slipping in questions about the town, its population, its schools, its libraries, its shopping, any angle that might circle back to Skynet. Time and again Desert Canyon Heat and Air came up: “You should see our new hospital,” Diana gushed. “The Company paid for it. Wanted the best healthcare for their employees.” Or, “We have state-of-the-art computers in all the schools, courtesy of The Company.”
“They sound like a terrific employer,” Derek noted, as the tour came to an end in the spacious, sunny living room. “Any chance they’re hiring? I won’t want to commute to the city every day for work.”
“I’ll ask my husband, Ed,” Diana offered. “He’s head of security at the warehouse.”
Jackpot. Now they knew the warehouse had security, and they had a name, Ed Winston, to go with that knowledge. A way to start researching how much resistance they might encounter if they did decide to break into Desert Canyon’s isolated bunker.
Figuring they’d learned all they could for the moment, Sarah started to thank Diana for her time, then noticed a curved scuff-mark on the hardwood floor, like something had been drug across it. Her eyes followed the mark back to a built-in bookcase, and a tingle of apprehension moved through her. She would have bet her considerable stash of diamonds back home that the bookcase concealed a secret room.
“This craftsmanship is beautiful,” she said to Diana, walking over and running her hands along the wood. “Is this original, or did the previous owners put it in?”
“Oh no, that’s original,” Diana answered. Sarah could feel Derek watching her closely; she tried to silently convey the message, The bookcase is important, check it out, while surreptitiously slipping her hand into her bag and pressing the number two on her speed dial. Instantly, Derek’s cell phone jangled.
He snatched it out of his pocket, saw that it was Sarah calling, and arched an eyebrow at her. Almost imperceptibly, she nodded.
“Sorry, I’ve got to take this,” he apologized. “It’s the office.”
He walked toward the windows, saying, “Hello,” to dead air. Sarah gently steered Diana back into the kitchen. “I’d like another look at the stove,” she said. “With a teenager in the house, I spend most of my life cooking.” Diana laughed.
They ended up talking in the kitchen for nearly twenty minutes. Sarah could be incredibly charming when she chose to be; soon, she had Diana Winston absorbed in a conversation about rose gardening, as though that were the most fascinating topic in the world.
Derek stepped up in the doorway. “Sorry for the delay,” he said, his pretty blue eyes so intense Sarah knew he’d found something behind the bookcase. Something huge. “We should probably get going, honey. We don’t want to be home too late.”
They shook hands with Diana again and promised to call back in a couple of days with a decision on the house.
A black-haired, olive-skinned girl about John’s age was coming out of the house across the street when Derek and Sarah walked back to their truck. The McCarthys, Sarah recalled, seeing the name on the mailbox. The house the Desert Canyon Heat and Air van had pulled into yesterday.
“Hi,” the girl called to them, in a friendly small town way. “New neighbors?”
“Maybe,” Sarah answered. “My husband is thinking of getting a job at the heat and air plant.”
“Cool. My dad works there. It’d be nice to have neighbors again,” the girl said. “Mike’s house has been empty for almost a year.”
“Mike Thompson. He was a friend of mine. That’s his family’s house for sale,” the girl explained. She grinned. “You wouldn’t happen to have a cute teenage son, would you?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Double-plus, then.” The girl waved to her. “Well, see ya, I hope!”
Sarah waited until she’d slammed her door and the engine had roared to life to say, “Okay, Reese, what’d you find?”
He turned to her, his expression grave. “Skynet.”
John anticipated needing snacks for a day spent learning to fight Terminators, so on their way out of town, he asked Cameron to stop at the supermarket.
It was one of those big, generic chain stores with overly bright lighting and tinny Muzak piped in over the speakers. John grabbed a box of Twinkies, a twelve-pack of Coke, a bag of pretzels and a package of beef jerky – the quintessential diet of a sixteen-year-old boy – and steered the cart up to the checkout lane, which was surprisingly busy for eight o’clock on a Tuesday morning.
Purple-and-gold L.A. Lakers caps were scattered across a display table near the magazine rack. Cameron picked one up. “You should wear a hat,” she told John seriously. “It protects your skin from harmful ultra-violet rays. Fifty-three thousand people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S.”
“Okay, you need to find something better to do at night than memorize encyclopedias.”
John turned bright red. Christ, Freudian slip much? he harangued himself. If Cameron picked up on the subtext, she didn’t let on. She was still regarding him seriously. Resting his elbows on the handle of the shopping cart, John told her, “I don’t spend that much time outdoors. Besides, I look stupid in a hat.”
“Would I look stupid in a hat?”
“I don’t know. Let’s see.” Grinning, John took the cap out of her hands and pushed it down over her dark hair; she watched him, her brown eyes solemn.
“Do I look stupid?”
John turned Cameron around so she could see her reflection in the store’s front window: a tall, graceful girl in skin-tight jeans and a silver tank-top, with long, silky dark hair spilling out from underneath a baseball cap. Standing behind her, he brushed her hair back off her cheek, rested his hands lightly on her shoulders.
“You look pretty,” he told her. “You always look pretty.”
John plucked the hat off Cameron’s hand and tossed it onto the conveyer belt with the rest of their haul. “What are you doing?” Cameron asked him.
“I’m buying you the hat,” he replied.
“Like a present?”
“Like a present,” he clarified.
Cameron frowned, watching the hat ride alongside his Twinkies. “No one has ever bought me a present before.” She laced her fingers through his, saying again, more earnestly this time, “Thank you.”
The cashier, a gray-haired grandmotherly type, was beaming at them. “Don’t you kids make a cute couple,” she cooed.
John waited for Cameron to say, No, this is my brother, but she didn’t. She just went on holding his hand.
They drove north out of the city, Cameron behind the wheel, John munching down Twinkies and Cokes. She wore the baseball cap, which he found unbelievably adorable. The warm California wind stirred her hair; she tucked the silky strands behind her ears, and John looked away, willing his thoughts away from how close he’d come to kissing her the previous night. He was perilously aware that they had a whole day together, alone, in front of them. Better to forestall thoughts of kissing from the get-go.
They drove for almost forty minutes. The city gave way to picturesque suburbs and then to green hills overlooking the ocean. John used the time to play a little “getting to know you” game with her, like he might have on a first date:
Favorite authors? “Stephen King,” John said, without hesitation; “I enjoy Charles Dickens,” said Cameron, proof that cyborgs had no accounting for taste.
Places they wanted to visit? “I’ve always wanted to see Australia,” John said, “especially the Outback”; “The Amazon sounds interesting,” Cameron said.
Favorite color? “Blue,” John decided; “I don’t understand the question,” Cameron frowned. “Color is just the eye’s perception of the spectrum of light.” John laughed. Cyborgs were nothing if not literal.
Finally, Cameron turned off the main highway and brought the SUV to a stop in front of a rusted gate. At the top, metal letters spelled out St. Agnes.
“Where are we?” John asked.
Instead of answering, Cameron got out of the car, broke the rusted padlock like a twig, and pushed the gate open.
They drove along a rutted asphalt drive that wound around a jungle-like forest. A tall wrought-iron fence, the kind with spikes on top, surrounded the abandoned property. “This would be an awesome place to shoot a horror film,” John observed, surveying the dense foliage around them. “How’d you find it?”
Deadpan, Cameron returned, “I don’t sleep.” John grinned.
A long, low brick building came into view. “St. Agnes Asylum,” John read off a crumbling white sign over the front door.
So this had once been a mental hospital. The irony of accompanying Cameron into a psychiatric facility after what he’d experienced in Sideways Universe was not lost on John, but he tried to let it go. He was in the real world now. He couldn’t obsess over what had happened in that other place.
The front door opened with a hard shove of Cameron’s shoulder. A musty odor, like molding leaves and stagnant water, wafted through the empty lobby. John switched on his flashlight as he followed Cameron down the damp, windowless corridor.
Despite his determination not to obsess over Sideways Universe, he couldn’t help being reminded of the old hospital Riley had led him into during his dream (or whatever it had been). What she’d said to him there really bugged John. He didn’t like to think that a reality existed where he was the sort of asshole who would take a girl’s virginity and then simply dump her.
They passed doorway after doorway, shadows shifting eerily in the beam of John’s flashlight, until they reached a large room at the very end of the hall. Cameron held the double doors open for John. He stepped past her, their arms brushing.
“Okay, so, tell me again why we had to come to The Haunted Asylum for me to learn how to fight Terminators,” John started.
Cameron grabbed him by the upper arms, hard, and slammed him against the wall. John was too startled to do much more than say, “Hey!”
She held him there, pinned, gripping him tight, though not tight enough to hurt. John swallowed hard. He realized that a Terminator had him pressed against a wall, and he should have been scared to death, yet fear was not his dominant emotion as Cameron stared hard into his eyes.
“You can’t fight me,” she told him, simply. “This body, the software is designed to kill humans. The hardware is designed to kill humans.”
John nodded. Her hold on him relaxed the slightest bit, but she didn’t step away. He didn’t struggle, didn’t attempt to escape. She tilted her head to the side, her lips a fraction of an inch from his. John exerted all of his willpower to keep from tilting his head in response, from nudging his chin forward that last little bit to taste her mouth. She had to know what he was thinking. She had to see it in his eyes. The wanting of her was practically scorching his skin.
Not yet, something inside of him whispered. She’s not ready yet.
Releasing him, Cameron announced, “You need better weapons. Weapons that can take down a Terminator. That’s what I brought you here to teach you.”
She gestured to a metal table in the center of the room, where a white sheet covered a suspiciously human-like shape. Dread prickled along John’s neck. “Cameron, you didn’t…?”
“It’s not a person,” she assured him. “It’s a Terminator. His name was Myron Stark. Skynet sent him back to perform a mission on New Year’s Eve 2010. I stopped him.”
John folded his arms across his chest. “Why didn’t you tell me about any of this?”
“You were busy with Riley,” Cameron said evenly. “I took care of it.”
Busy with Riley. Christ, what an ass he’d been, letting his mom and Cameron and Derek handle everything while he ran around pretending to be John Baum.
John peeled back the sheet and studied the deactivated T-888. The guy was massive, all bulging biceps and rippling pectorals; his lower half had been partially sheered away, so that wires hung out of his torso like guts. Cameron had placed his amputated right leg on the cot. His left thigh was still attached to the hip by one large hinge-joint.
“How did you take him out?” John wanted to know.
“I dropped an elevator on him and removed his chip.”
John was more than impressed that Cameron had been able to defeat this Goliath, though part of him wished she wasn’t quite so fearless. She was tough, no doubt about it, but – and he realized this word didn’t fully capture Cameron’s amazing strength and resilience – she seemed more delicate than other Terminators. If anything ever happened to her…
Priority Two, John thought determinedly, save the girl. He wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
“Skynet sent him back too early,” Cameron was saying. She joined John at the gurney, looking on her kill with flat, emotionless eyes. “He was supposed to arrive in 2010. Instead, he arrived in 1920. He had been in standby mode for a long time.”
John started. “Too early? You mean Skynet can make mistakes?”
“Skynet can make mistakes. It hasn’t managed to kill you yet.”
Very true. Even so, John had difficulty conceiving of Skynet as fallible. “Is he all here?” John inquired, meaning Stark. “Even his chip?”
Cameron crossed to a desk in the corner and returned with an instrument tray that included a scalpel, screw-drivers, bolt cutters, forceps – and a T-888 CPU. An expensive laptop and state-of-the-art graphics processing equipment were arranged on the desk as well.
“We’re going to disassemble him,” Cameron explained. “You can use him to understand how we work. What makes us vulnerable. You can use his chip to practice reprogramming.”
A shudder of revulsion ran through John. A Terminator cadaver? Creepy. Useful, but creepy.
“You’ve really thought this through, haven’t you?” he said to her. “I mean, you found this place,” he gestured at the walls, indicating the abandoned property, “and you had the foresight to bring this Terminator here after you disabled it. You’ve really considered how to train me.”
“We jumped over eight years,” Cameron reminded him. “Judgment Day is April 21, 2011. You don’t have much time to get ready.”
So today he would focus on Priority Three, John decided. He picked up the scalpel. “Show me what to do.”
Something was going on with John and the machine.
Sarah could tell by the way they sat on the couch with their heads together. The machine was wearing a baseball cap. John tugged on the brim of it and laughed; the machine’s dark eyes sparkled. Sarah was tempted to throw a bucket of cold water over their heads.
They shut up every time she walked past the living room – which was often, because Sarah was pacing restlessly, anxious for Derek to return with the recon photos they’d snapped of Charm Acres on the way out of town.
Sarah was edgy and irritable. Edgy, because Skynet was already setting up shop here in this time, using human beings to do its dirty work. Stupid, ridiculous humans who didn’t realize how “The Company” was using them to bring about the end of the world.
Irritable, because her son clearly had a secret. John was up to something, and the machine was in on it.
“Took you long enough,” Sarah snapped at Derek the instant the front door opened. “I thought it was a one-hour photo shop.”
“There was a line,” he said.
As he brushed by her, she caught a distinct whiff of Chanel No. 5. Sarah considered shooting him. They had discovered a huge Skynet operation in the desert, and he couldn’t stay away from Mystery Woman for a few hours while they figured out what to do next?
The Connor/Reese family settled in around the kitchen table, passing around the photos of white picket fences, manicured lawns, and suburban homes. “It’s like a Skynet work camp,” Derek related. “Every house is bugged. They’ve got eyes on everybody. Kyle told me that’s how the machines kept tabs on people in Century when you were there,” he added to John.
“Sounds awful,” John noted grimly.
“I found a series of tunnels running between the properties. The one in the house we were in was hidden behind a bookcase. I’m willing to bet the owners never even knew it was there.”
“The Thompsons,” Sarah recalled, thinking of the dark-haired girl across the street. She wondered what had happened to Mike Thompson and his parents. Something told her they hadn’t simply moved on.
“Where did the tunnel go?” John asked. He was all business tonight, Sarah noted, no playful banter with the machine.
“To a central monitoring station, where all the CC-TV feeds run into.”
“So who’s monitoring the tapes?” John wondered.
“We’re assuming people,” Derek replied.
John frowned. “People? That seems like a leap. Isn’t it more likely that Skynet sent T-triple-eights back to keep an eye on whatever Desert Canyon is building?”
The machine put in, “Skynet uses humans to monitor its work camps in the future. If Charm Acres is designed on the same model, it’s logical to assume people are monitoring the residents.”
“The Greys,” Derek said, without inflection. “The people who work for Skynet in the future, we call them The Greys.”
Sarah stood, pacing again, cagey energy making her restless. Skynet was pissing her off tonight. It was building its goddamn machines before Judgment Day. Stockpiling weapons to unleash on the human survivors of the nuclear apocalypse. Cutting into her son’s time to prepare the Resistance. She wanted to toss a few packets of C-4 in the truck, speed out into the desert, and blow Desert Canyon Heat and Air sky-high.
Take that, sons of bitches, she would say. My son is going to pound you metal motherfuckers into dust.
“We have to hit this thing, whatever they’ve got out there in this desert,” she declared.
“Mom, relax.” John looked angry, too, and Sarah was pleased by that – pleased that his infatuation with Cameron didn’t keep him from loathing the machines. “This is big, all right? Maybe bigger than big. But there are people in that town. Live, human people who probably don’t have a clue what they’re involved in. Whatever we do, we have to protect them.”
The kid had a point. Mastering herself, Sarah resumed her seat. “Okay, so what do we do?”
“We have to know what they’re really building out there,” Derek offered. “Could be more Drones. Could be the AI that becomes Skynet. We can’t plan our next move until we know what their endgame is.”
Derek was watching John, not for his reaction, Sarah realized with a jolt, but for his approval.
Leadership still didn’t sit easily on her son’s thin shoulders – in that way, at least, he wasn’t so different from the boy who had always looked to Sarah to make the big decisions. But she watched him work it out in his mind, turning over the options, struggling to become who the human race needed him to be.
Finally, he said, “We need to get into the warehouse.” He looked at Sarah, and she nodded for him to go on – letting this be his mission, his plan. “Mom, you and Derek recon the warehouse again tomorrow and Thursday. See if you can’t pin down a schedule for who’s coming and going when. I’ll get online and try to get the city plans. If they’ve got this much surveillance equipment on the town, the warehouse may be monitored around the clock, too. In that case, they’re going to need lots of fiber optic cables, and anything that’s been run underground should show up in the city records.”
He was on his feet, the machine a step behind him. “Cameron and I should check our supplies. We’re going to need plenty of weapons and ammo to go into this place.” He flashed his mom a quick smile. “Don’t worry. We’ll be careful.”
Just like that, the two of them were gone.
Derek stood. “I should go – ”
“Let me guess,” Sarah cut in icily. “More recon.” Her fingers clenched into fists at her sides. “You just got back from this woman’s bed not two hours ago. Is she really that good?”
A muscle worked in Derek’s jaw. “I wasn’t in anybody’s bed this evening, Sarah. I was processing the damn film, like you asked me to.”
He spoke with such convincing indignation, Sarah’s righteous anger faded somewhat. “All right,” she sighed. “I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions.”
She pulled her fingers through her hair, bone-weary, tired of second-guessing herself. She never used to second-guess herself. Then Cameron and Derek had come along, and suddenly, her world was spinning like a top.
Derek kicked back in his chair, studying her. Sarah squirmed under that piercing blue gaze. “I said sorry, Reese,” she muttered.
“As a matter of fact, you didn’t say you were sorry. And you keep calling me that.”
A blush threatened. Sarah concentrated hard on the tabletop, unable to meet his eyes. “It’s your name, isn’t it?”
“Yes, but I’m not the one you used to call ‘Reese,’ am I?”
So he knew. Goddammit, John, Sarah thought, inwardly seething, I told you not to tell him about your father.
“John didn’t tell me,” Derek said, as if reading her thoughts. “He looks just like Kyle. I figured it out on my own.”
Sarah waited for the grief to come, for the horrible, yawning hole of loss to open up inside of her. She was sitting at her kitchen table with Kyle Reese’s brother, discussing her son – their son, Kyle’s son – and Kyle was bones and dust by now. But the grief didn’t come. In fact, she felt an odd sense of relief that Derek knew.
“I can explain,” she began.
“You don’t have to explain. I’m proud that John’s my nephew. But even if he wasn’t, I would die for John Connor.”
In her head, she heard Kyle say, I came across time for YOU, Sarah.
Derek shifted forward, his words weighty with feeling. “You don’t have to worry about what I’m doing or who I’m seeing when I’m not here. I’m not some lovesick kid. I understand the importance of the work we’re doing. I know what’s at stake. I told you once before, I won’t be the bastard who brings metal down on the Connors.”
For a long time, Sarah had wondered who her son was in the future that he inspired such devotion. John had always possessed a certain magnetism that drew people to him, yet she’d never been able to square the temperamental teenager she knew with the warrior-hero Kyle and Derek described.
He’s different now, her inner voice whispered. Since the accident, he’s changed. Become more like the person they talk about. Strong. Decisive. Brave.
Kyle Reese had died and left her to prepare their son for the end of the world. She had done her job well. Relief, sharp and palpable, flooded into the space usually reserved for grief in Sarah’s heart.
She smiled, a real, from-the-heart kind of smile, and stood up. “I’m going to sleep,” she announced to Derek. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Sarah went upstairs and fell across her pillows. For the first time in weeks, she slept soundly, without nightmares. When she came down in the morning, John’s uncle was asleep on the couch. She had a feeling he’d been there all night.