Spying on Riley didn’t get interesting until Friday evening.
By then, John’s mother was so intent on invading Desert Canyon Heat and Air in two days’ time that she barely lifted her hand in a wave when John announced that he and Cameron were going out. Which was good, John reflected, because he was running out of excuses for why he and Cameron needed to be out of the house every evening.
It was like Cyberdyne all over again. John hadn’t seen his mother so driven since then. He just hoped no innocent people died this time.
“Maybe I was wrong,” John said, two hours into their stake-out Friday night. “Maybe Riley wasn’t hiding anything.”
He tried and failed to stifle a yawn. He was exhausted, running on fumes: Each of the last four days had been filled with disassembling Myron Stark’s Terminator-corpse, examining each component to understand how it worked – and how it could be destroyed; every evening had been filled with plotting to break into the Desert Canyon factory, followed by hours parked with Cameron in front of Riley’s house, followed by a couple more hours of research into Kaliba when John and Cameron returned home.
Adding to the boredom was the fact that Riley’s foster parents led the dullest lives ever: Home straight from work to see to their children at four-thirty, evening spent cooking dinner and playing family boardgames and doing laundry and helping with homework, everybody in their rooms by ten o’clock. Riley’s light usually stayed on until eleven-thirty. By then, the rest of the house was already dark.
At one time, John would have seriously envied these people their normal, ordered lives. But such a life wouldn’t have included Cameron. Therefore, it no longer interested him.
Without taking her eyes off the house, Cameron said to him, “We should give it another thirty minutes.”
John, in his familiar slouched-back-with-feet-on-the-dash stake-out position, regarded her curiously. “Why another thirty minutes?”
“Because her foster parents will be in bed in another thirty minutes. If she’s going to sneak out, she’ll wait until they’re asleep.”
“You’ve been timing their movements?” Wishing he would have thought to do that.
“Humans can be very predictable.”
John snickered. “Says the cyborg.”
Cameron pulled her eyes away from Riley’s window and cocked an eyebrow at him. “I don’t understand.”
“Oh, come on. Cyborgs are totally predictable. Way more predictable than humans.”
“Because,” John reasoned, “if I program you with a mission parameter, you’re going to execute that mission. Humans aren’t like that. We go off-task. Do stupid things.”
He recalled saying something like that to her not so long ago, and quite bitterly: Humans do stupid things. So don’t worry about it and be happy you’re a machine.
To which she’d replied, I’m a machine. I can’t be happy.
Well, John thought stubbornly, we’ll see about that.
Cameron was still looking at him. Her expression seemed almost…offended. “Cyborgs aren’t as predictable as you think.”
“Oh, yeah?” John challenged, warming to the debate. “Prove it. Surprise me.”
Boy, was that ever the wrong thing to say.
For the occasion of spying on Riley, Cameron had selected a denim mini-skirt and a ribbed shell-pink tank-top, leaving most of her long arms and legs exposed. Now, she unfolded those slender limbs from behind the wheel, crawled cat-like across the seat, and pressed John back against the passenger’s side window. His heart climbed into his throat.
She slid her hand up under the hem of his shirt. John breathed out sharply, a soft gasp, at the feel of her fingers on his skin. “What are you doing?” he whispered.
Cameron tugged the .9 millimeter out of the waistband of his jeans. “Taking your gun,” she whispered back.
Experiences in Sideways Universe aside – and John didn’t really count those, since he couldn’t be sure they’d been real – he had never been more aroused in his sixteen years.
Cameron retreated to her side of the truck, his gun in her lap. “Did that surprise you?” she asked, too innocently.
John ran a hand through his hair. When he felt he had his voice sufficiently under control to respond, he said dryly, “Okay, you’re right. I wasn’t expecting that.”
She lifted her chin, triumphant. John narrowed his eyes at her. Teasing him like that was evil. Pure evil.
And kind of fun.
“So are you saying there are no rules?” he pressed, trying to focus on something other than how his skin still tingled from her touch. “Are you saying you can just do whatever you want, regardless of your programming?” That didn’t track with what he knew about Terminators.
“No. We can’t do whatever we want. But completing a mission requires us to adapt to the situation. To change,” she clarified. “The nature of predictability is that it can be anticipated. Adaptation cannot be anticipated.”
Intrigued, John sat up straighter in the seat. “You’re saying a Terminator can act in ways no one can predict in order to complete its mission.”
“We’re programmed with a goal, not with a specific set of actions. The more complicated the mission, the more freedom we have to make choices. To decide how to act.”
That made sense. Future-John had given Cameron an incredibly complex mission: to protect him and to stop Skynet. Not even her super-advanced CPU could have been programmed with enough behavioral parameters to anticipate every contingency that might be necessary to complete that mission. She has to be able to learn, he realized. On some level, of course, John had already figured that out, although the ramifications of that insight were only now becoming clear to him.
If she could learn, maybe she could learn to circumvent her programming. To decide not to kill, even if her chip was damaged.
Satisfied that she’d proven her point, Cameron had gone back to staring at Riley’s house. John studied her from underneath his lashes. “How did Skynet teach Terminators to pass for human?”
“They brought in prisoners for us to observe. We talked to them. Asked them questions.”
“Questions about what?”
“Their histories. Their families. Many things.”
Allison Young. The name hung there between them, unspoken. Suddenly, John was certain Allison Young had been a real person, and that her history – her life, her dreams, her mannerisms – had been stolen from her and programmed into Cameron. He was certain because Cameron had that same wistful look she’d had when she’d confessed to killing the bird.
She regretted what she had done to Allison Young.
John could have asked for the whole story. He was convinced she would have told it to him. But he let it go. It was in the past. Okay, technically it was in the future, but you learned to overlook those fine distinctions when you were John Connor. Whatever. The point was, he didn’t really want to think about Cameron killing people.
“How does it work, then? Acting human, I mean,” he said. “Do you just mimic? Like, when I say ‘hello,’ you say ‘hello’ back?”
Cameron turned the idea over in her mind. “I don’t mimic. I’m programmed to learn. Part of my design is to understand people. Why they do the things they do. Understanding human behavior makes my behavior seem more natural.”
“Does it feel natural?”
She turned toward him again. “Are you asking me if I feel human?”
Her eyes smoldered at him, searing John’s skin. “Yeah,” he managed, rather breathily. “I guess I am.”
“That’s hard to say. I don’t know what it feels like to be human.”
What a beautifully honest answer. “Well, you’re not missing much,” he told her. “Most of the time it feels pretty confusing.”
Like right now, when I’d do anything to kiss you, but I’m not certain…I don’t want to rush you…
“I feel confused sometimes,” Cameron said.
She wasn’t making it easy for John to stay on his half of the seat. Her eyes pulled him toward her like a magnet. “What confuses you?” he asked, proud that he could form a coherent thought while his mind was at war with his body.
Before Cameron could answer, movement behind Riley’s curtains attracted John’s attention. “Look,” he said, pointing, and Cameron’s eyes snapped back to the house.
Riley climbed out her bedroom window onto the pitched roof and walked to the edge with a practiced step that told John she had performed this escape routine many times. Soundlessly, she clambered down a rose-laden trellis on the side of the house, then scampered across the dark yard and down the sidewalk.
Cameron started the engine when Riley was at the end of the block. The SUV eased down the nighttime street, headlights off.
John had been hoping, wishing, he was wrong about Riley. He chanced a glance at Cameron. Her expression was hard, almost brutal. John’s .9 millimeter still rested next to her on the seat. She was programmed to protect him. Cyborgs might have been less predictable than he’d assumed, but if Riley proved to be a threat, John knew exactly what Cameron would do.
Sarah was stacking blocks of C-4 in a black backpack when Derek walked into her bedroom and announced, “I need to show you something.”
Immediately, Sarah put the backpack down and followed him out the front door.
They drove into the desert, down a highway that had become so familiar over the last five days Sarah could have driven it blindfolded. This far from the city, the only light came from the stars and the truck’s highbeams. The darkness settled softly around them.
Being around Derek had gotten easier for Sarah of late. Maybe too easy. Although “easy” wasn’t really the right word: He challenged her, contradicted her, infuriated her. He knew exactly how to get her blood up. Nonetheless, their relationship had definitely changed since he’d told her that he knew about Kyle. Before, the secret of John’s paternity had created a gulf between them; with that chasm bridged, Sarah was surprised at how quickly she’d come to look forward to his watchful, moody presence at her side.
Relying on people unnerved Sarah. Instinct warned her to run, but John needed Derek. She couldn’t pack up and leave like she had when Charlie Dixon had given her a ring.
“I’ve been thinking,” Sarah said into the companionable silence. “I don’t imagine sleeping on our couch is very comfortable.”
“I’ve slept on worse,” Derek assured her mildly. “Not many feather-pillows survived Judgment Day.”
“There’s a nice space up in the attic. We could clean it out. Put an air mattress up there.”
Derek glanced at her, his blue eyes glowing like bits of glass in the dark. “We’ve been at the new house for quite a while now. Any particular reason you’re suddenly concerned about my sleeping arrangements?”
“I’m not trying to keep tabs on you, if that’s what you’re asking,” Sarah sniffed, instantly on the defensive.
“Really?” He quirked an almost devilish grin on her. “I’m a little disappointed. Here I thought you were starting to like having me around.”
In spite of herself, Sarah smiled.
They were a mile from Desert Canyon Heat and Air when Derek abruptly turned left off the main highway, down a gravel side-road Sarah had barely noted. Scrubby pastures rolled past. She opened her mouth to ask where they were going.
Then she saw the cows.
Almost a dozen of them, lying unnaturally still on the ground around a small, black pond. Derek put the truck in park and climbed out with the engine running. Sarah slid out the passenger’s side and accompanied him to the water’s edge.
The cows were dead. Flies buzzed around them; maggots crawled through their eye-sockets. Sarah’s stomach lurched. So much for frying hamburgers tomorrow night.
“What did this?” she asked Derek.
“I don’t know,” he responded. “I came upon them this evening when I was scouting the roads around the warehouse.”
Always prudent to have more than one escape route. Sarah felt like a rookie for not having thought to check that out herself.
She scanned the pasture, searching for anything that might explain the dead cows. There was only the pond. “If the water supply was poisoned, surely the townspeople would have noticed,” she remarked. “Have you ever seen anything like this, in the future?”
“Once, but not with cows.” Derek scratched at the dark stubble on his chin. “I was with a raiding party, checking out a new Skynet facility near Serrano Point. We came upon this group of Resistance fighters lying in the middle of the road. All dead, but no visible wounds. Just dead. Connor sent out techs to test their blood, see if we were dealing with some kind of bioweapon, but there was nothing. No sign of infection. They were just dead.”
Sarah shuddered. “Maybe we shouldn’t let John help with this,” she murmured, meaning the break-in at Desert Canyon they had planned for Sunday night. “Maybe it’s too dangerous.”
“It’s always dangerous,” Derek said. “In the future, Connor doesn’t sit back in some fortress while the rest of us fight. He’s right out there with us, in the trenches. It’s part of the reason why people follow him all over hell.”
Her son, the warrior. “But he has to survive in the present to lead you in the future,” Sarah reminded Derek.
“Good point.” He sighed. “He’s your son. Do what you think is best. But if I can give you some advice,” he added, “you might want to let John make the decision. I think he’s ready to start making some of his own choices.”
Four miles from her foster parents’ house, Riley walked into the parking lot of a twenty-four-hour fitness center. John breathed a sigh of relief. Nothing criminal about going to the gym, now was there?
Cameron pulled the SUV into an empty parking space. Her expression remained tense: Clearly, she wasn’t convinced this little trip was as innocent as it seemed on the surface.
“She likes to swim,” John remembered, pointing to a poster plastered in the fitness center’s front window: 24-7 Access to Olympic-Size Pool!
“It’s nothing,” he insisted to Cameron, who hadn’t taken her eyes off Riley. She reminded him of a hawk stalking its prey, totally zeroed in on her target. “She’s just going for a swim. She’s – ”
A tiny, caramel-skinned woman with a cloud of curly raven hair and pouty lips was standing by the gym’s glass double doors. In the light spilling onto the pavement from inside, John watched her greet Riley with a quick hug. A mentor, maybe? Someone Social Services had assigned to Riley, to help her handle the challenges of being an orphaned foster kid?
Mentors don’t encourage you to sneak out of your foster parents’ house at midnight, his inner voice piped up.
Cameron killed the engine. She reached for the .9 millimeter. Desperately, John said, “Cameron, we don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know who that is.”
“I know who that is,” Cameron corrected. “Commander Jesse Flores of the USS Jimmy Carter.” She turned an emotionless gaze on John. “She’s from the future.”
The news struck John somewhere below the heart, knocking the breath out of him. It wasn’t real, was his first thought. Riley didn’t really care about me.
Goddamn, that hurt more than he’d expected.
Maybe the pain of betrayal showed on his face, because Cameron suddenly looked a lot more pissed-off than an unfeeling cyborg should have been able to. She picked up the gun.
John caught her wrist – gently, not wanting this to escalate into a fight. Cameron’s dark eyes moved from his hand to his face, either bewildered or disapproving. Possibly both. “Riley is a threat to you,” she said, as if the end result of that fact – killing her – was a foregone conclusion.
“Riley lied to me,” John agreed. “But we don’t know why she’s here, or why this Commander Flores person is here. Maybe I sent them back on a mission of some kind. Maybe they’re here to protect me, too. Remember, you lied to me about who you were when we first met.”
Cameron considered that. “It seems like a risk,” she finally said. “It would be safer to kill them.”
John released her arm. He settled back in his seat, keeping his expression perfectly neutral, his tone devoid of judgment. “Do what you think is right,” he said. “I’m willing to admit there’s a lot I don’t know yet about being John Connor. You know me in the future. If you think I would order you to kill Riley, then do it.”
Damn if those weren’t difficult words to say. He’d never authorized anyone’s execution before. But John forced himself to remain absolutely still. He forced himself to let Cameron make the choice.
And if she walks across the parking lot and blasts Riley to pieces? his inner voice challenged.
She won’t, he argued back to himself. Clinging to that belief was all that kept him from throwing open the car door and screaming for Riley to run like hell.
Cameron stared out the windshield. Riley and the woman from the future, Jesse, disappeared inside the fitness center. Slowly, Cameron’s fingers relaxed on the gun. She returned it to John, who tucked the weapon into his waistband, not letting her see how badly his hands were shaking.
“We should wait until we have more information,” Cameron announced simply.
John shut his eyes, weak with relief.
They pulled back out onto the street, but Cameron didn’t take the route home. John didn’t ask where they were going. He felt wired, twitchy. Adrenaline buzz – those six seconds while Cameron had contemplated Riley’s fate had felt like an hour-long battle. John wasn’t ready to go home yet, and apparently, Cameron wasn’t either.
She parked on a deserted bluff overlooking the ocean. Without speaking, she got out, took an old blue blanket from behind the seat, and spread it on the ground. John followed her. She stretched out, and he lay down beside her, linking his arms behind his head.
The stars were brilliant this far from the city, though the glow of the LA skyline was still visible in the distance. “I’m sorry about Riley,” Cameron said after a while. “I know you didn’t want her to be involved in this.”
John shrugged. His throat was tight. He was afraid if he tried to talk, the threatening tears might spill over, and he didn’t want Cameron to see him crying over Riley. He didn’t want to cry over Riley. It wasn’t like he’d been in love with her. Truly, he hadn’t been. Infatuated, maybe, and even that might have been pushing it.
It was just…Girls had never paid much attention to John. Everywhere he’d gone, he’d always been the weird new kid. Riley had been good for his ego. When he was around her, he’d been able to feel like less of a loser. Only it had all been a lie, and that stung.
Even the future leader of mankind needed to feel wanted sometimes.
A cool ocean breeze skimmed his skin. John glanced at Cameron, in her mini-skirt and tank-top, and asked, “Are you cold?”
He held out one arm, and she curled into his side, her head on his chest. John smiled up at the stars. The hurt of Riley’s betrayal leaked out of him, swirling away on the wind. Cameron’s fingertips rested lightly on his stomach. John softly caressed the exposed skin of her upper-arm, his pulse thrumming.
No doubt Cameron could hear the crazy rhythm of his heart with her ear resting on his shoulder. After a moment, she observed, “You respond to this body.”
Okay, so she knew she was hot.
John blushed but didn’t deny it, didn’t pretend not to desire her. “That’s not all I’m responding to, you know. I’m responding to you.” Ever-so-softly, he brushed his fingertips through her hair, over the spot that contained her chip.
“You want me to be human.”
She said it flatly, like it was obvious, but John shook his head. “I want you to be you. Don’t you see? You wouldn’t be you if you were human. You wouldn’t be Cameron.”
There, he’d said it. Out loud. He wanted her, just how she was, right here, right now. He didn’t need a Sideways Universe where she was human to be in love with her. He’d been in love with her for months now. Not since the first time he’d seen her. Maybe love at first sight existed – he thought it must have, given what had happened between his mother and Kyle Reese – but it hadn’t been like that for John with Cameron. Then, she had been a pretty girl, her attention flattering, but someone he could have dismissed, gotten over and forgotten about.
If he had to pinpoint it, the moment he’d fallen in love with her, it had to be that day at the museum, before his sixteenth birthday, when she’d asked him if she had a birthday. Right then, John had understood, crystal clear, that she wasn’t human. She was Cameron. His Cameron. There was no one else like her in the world. There was no one else he wanted.
Cameron sat up, her hair tumbling around her face, and looked down at him, as if deciding whether or not to believe him. John gazed steadily back at her. After a beat, she said, “Thank you for explaining.”
John laughed, low and soft. He pushed up on his elbows and kissed her cheek.
He meant to stop there. But his lips lingered next to hers for a fraction of a second longer than was necessary, and she didn’t pull away. His eyes held hers, questioning, as he touched his mouth to hers in the briefest, softest of kisses.
She didn’t respond instantly, with the undeniably human hunger Cameron Phillips had shown in Sideways Universe. Her response was tentative, almost timid – and wonderful, because it was such a perfectly Cameron response: She returned the pressure of his lips hesitantly, eyes wide open, staring into his.
John’s blood turned to smoke. His teeth grazed her lower lip. She tilted her chin up, capturing his mouth with a bit more determination.
Take it slow, John’s inner voice cautioned. You can’t rush this.
Exercising superb self-control, John lay back on the blanket. He was so happy, he could have floated up into the stars.
Cameron continued to lean down over him, her expression quizzical. “I’ve never kissed anyone,” she informed him.
“Oh, come on,” John teased. “You mean there aren’t any cyborg boyfriends in your past?”
She shook her head, still solemn. “Did I do it right?”
A wonderful shivery feeling moved through him. His lips tingled, longing for hers. “Yes,” he assured her, hooking an arm around her shoulders and guiding her head back down to his chest. “You were perfect.”