John was surprisingly reasonable when Sarah broached the possibility of him not accompanying them for the break-in at Desert Canyon Heat and Air.
Saturday morning, Sarah was in the kitchen making pancakes when her son came downstairs, still in his pajamas – an old pair of sweatpants and a ratty T-shirt. He looked thin, she thought, and poured more batter into the skillet.
“You were out late last night,” she observed, careful to keep her tone neutral. It was too early to pick a fight.
Yawning, John dropped into a chair at the table. His hair stuck up in the back, the way it had when he was a little boy and she’d cut it herself, scissoring the ends into jagged spikes because she’d never been a particularly adept hairdresser.
“Cameron and I went for a drive. I wanted to see the stars. You can’t see the stars in L.A.”
Star-gazing with a Terminator. Sarah placed a plate of pancakes in front of John. She had to practically bite her tongue in half not to comment on the absurdity of his infatuation: It’s a machine, John, she wanted to say, shaking him by the shoulders. It can’t love you.
Derek had told Sarah something after Mexico, something that had stuck with her more than she cared to admit, something the machine had said: “I have to find John. I can’t let anything happen to him.”
Not, It’s my mission. Not, I’ve been ordered to protect him. Just, I can’t let anything happen to him. Something Sarah would have said, or Derek, or Kyle, or Charlie. Not a machine.
Sarah carried her own plate over to the table and settled in across from John. “So what time are we hitting this place tomorrow night?” he asked, around a mouthful of syrupy pancake.
“Midnight. The cleaning crew will be gone by then, and it’ll just be the one security guard.” Sarah steeled herself for the explosion as she said, “I’ve been thinking that maybe it’s not a good idea for you to go along.”
Quickly, she explained about the cows, about the inexplicable deaths Derek had witnessed in the future. John listened patiently, steadily working through his pancakes and juice, his blue-green eyes perfectly calm.
“We don’t know what kind of weapon we’re dealing with here,” Sarah concluded. “I know how much you want to stop Skynet, John, but we have to plan for the worst. If Judgment Day happens, you have to survive.”
Almost to himself, John mumbled, “Priority One: Don’t get killed.”
Sarah arched an eyebrow. “What did you say?”
He glanced up, as if surprised to find he’d spoken aloud. “Oh, it’s nothing. Just something that occurred to me after my car accident. I can’t do anything to stop Skynet if I’m dead, can I?”
What exactly had happened to her son during that sixteen-hour blackout? Sarah wondered, not for the first time that week. “Well, it sounds like a good priority,” she managed.
“What does Derek think?”
“About you coming along?” Sarah twirled a strand of hair around her finger. “He said you should make your own decision.”
John’s chest puffed up a bit at that, and Sarah hid a smile behind her hand. The kid wanted to be treated like an adult. What sixteen-year-old didn’t?
“Mom, if Skynet is already here, in our time, maybe we can’t wait around for Judgment Day to happen anymore,” John said. He leaned forward, palms on the table, intense, the way he got when they discussed the war against the machines. In those moments, she could understand why people followed her son through hell and back in the future. “Maybe if we don’t stop them now, the Resistance doesn’t have a chance. If you really don’t want me to go, I won’t. But I feel like this is something I should do.”
Sixteen years, a voice inside Sarah’s heart whispered. You had your little boy for sixteen years. Now enjoy the man he’s becoming.
“Okay,” Sarah agreed, hoping he couldn’t see how hard it was for her to let go, to let him grow up.
It was John’s turn to be astonished. “Just like that? I can come?”
“Just like that.”
He shoved back his chair, walked around the table, and kissed the top of her head. Sarah laughed. “I didn’t just buy you a pony,” she teased him. “I gave you permission to come on a very dangerous mission where we might all get killed. Maybe you shouldn’t be so excited.”
“Are you kidding? I live for this shit,” John teased back. Then, in one of his abrupt and completely John Connor-ish about-faces, he became serious. “But when we get back, there’s something I need to tell you.”
Dread crept into Sarah’s chest, a cold pool that spread around her heart. “You can tell me now.”
“No, right now we need to focus on the mission. It’s nothing that can’t wait.”
Fabulous. Something else to lose sleep over: John’s big secret.
The machine appeared in the doorway, as if on cue. “Are you ready?” it asked John. Did Sarah imagine the way its gaze lingered a heartbeat too long on her son’s lips?
“Where are you going?” she inquired, aiming for a conversational tone. It still came out closer to an accusation.
“Putt-putt golf,” John answered. To Cameron, he said, “Just let me change clothes and I’ll be right down.”
The machine watched him dart up the stairs. Sarah glared at the back of its head. “Do you really have nothing better to do than play miniature golf all day?”
“Yes, I have better things to do,” it responded evenly. “But this makes John happy.”
“Since when do you know what makes John happy?” Sarah challenged, her temper rising.
The machine regarded her coolly, and for a second, Sarah thought it was going to say, I make John happy. Instead, it said, “I don’t always. But I’m trying to learn.”
Desert Canyon Heat and Air was either manufacturing solid-gold furnaces or it was a front company for something else. It took John twenty minutes to hack the code on the security system so the silent alarm wouldn’t trigger a police response – or worse.
“We’re in,” he finally announced in a whisper to Sarah, Derek, and Cameron. They were crouched beside him in the weeds at the back of the warehouse, where the alarm system hooked into the power supply.
Sarah motioned for Cameron to head around the side and open the main door. Cameron, wearing black yoga pants, a black T-shirt, and – yes, John found this unbelievably cute – her purple-and-gold LA Lakers baseball cap, which wasn’t exactly incognito, eased along the building, .9 millimeter in hand. Derek followed, then Sarah, and last of all, John, clutching a twelve-gauge shotgun. His mother had a backpack filled with C-4 slung over her shoulder.
John was nervous, and not just because they were about to infiltrate what essentially amounted to a Skynet factory. Assuming they survived the warehouse break-in, he had two pieces of news to break to his mother. One, of course, concerned Riley and her friend from the future, Jesse Flores. John had gone to bed Friday night with every intention of telling his mother what he and Cameron had witnessed, but then Sarah had filled him in on the dead cow situation at breakfast, and suddenly the potential that Skynet was constructing a WMD out in the desert had taken precedence over whatever John’s ex-girlfriend happened to be up to.
The Riley situation had been going on for months. It could hold another forty-eight hours while they focused on the warehouse, John had decided.
The other bit of news – and he knew Sarah was going to flip out over this – concerned James Ellison. John had phoned the retired lawman upon waking Saturday morning, to ask if he’d had time to think over John’s offer. “I’m in,” Ellison had said. “In fact, I have some information for you. I’d like to meet as soon as possible.”
John had promised to call back Monday to set up a meet. Which meant in the meantime he had to confess to Sarah that he’d gone to see Ellison without her permission based on a dream he’d had while knocked out from a head injury. He could imagine how well that would go over.
On top of all that, John was nervous because the warehouse op was the first mission he’d technically been in charge of: He had given everyone their recon assignments, he had laid out the plans for going in. If it went south and someone got hurt, it would be his fault. Well, more his fault than usual.
He tried not to doubt himself, yet sometimes John felt like his mind was in a tug-of-war between the old John (the one before Sideways Universe) and the new John (the one who had his priorities straight). He worried that he might wake up one day and his newfound clarity would be gone, all the confusion and confliction that was constantly knocking at the door would flood back in, and he would be miserable and lonely again. Whenever he started thinking that way, he would remember his father’s words: There is no fate but that which we make.
Becoming John Connor, the bad-ass super-soldier who would lead the human Resistance in the future, wasn’t just going to happen. Being that John Connor was a choice he was going to have to make every day, for the rest of his life.
A metallic clang told John that Cameron had kicked open the locked door. He heard a man shout; the cry was cut off by a loud bang – but not a gunshot. Derek whipped around the doorframe, gun in hand, expression tense. A moment later, he said to John and Sarah, “We’re clear.”
The security guard, a man with long scraggly hair whose nametag read “George,” was slumped unconscious against the far wall, where Cameron had thrown him. She nodded curtly to John, as if to say, That’s how it’s done.
John darted over to the elevator and hooked his gear into the security touchpad. In seconds, he had hacked the code, and the doors opened.
“Stay up here until we give you the all-clear,” Sarah commanded him.
John moved aside, heart pounding. His mother, his uncle, and Cameron stepped into the elevator. Sarah pushed the button for “L.” As the doors slid shut, John caught Cameron’s eye, and she winked at him.
If he’d been the type of person to pray, John would have prayed right then. He couldn’t lose them. Not any of them.
One minute ticked by. Then two. Then three. Then five. Then ten. John started to pace, imagining the worst. He found a set of plastic handcuffs in the guard’s desk – yeah, like those were standard issue at a furnace factory – and bound the still-unconscious George, setting him upright in the corner. George had a nasty goose-egg on the back of his head, probably a wicked concussion, but considering he’d faced off against a state-of-the-art killing machine, he’d gotten off lucky.
Suddenly, the elevator doors pinged. John whirled around, shotgun leveled at the opening, and Derek held up his hands. “I surrender,” he joked.
“Funny. Any trouble?”
“Not a soul around but us.”
“Good,” John said, thinking, This is too easy. The Kaliba group had gone to the considerable trouble of putting an entire town under secret surveillance and bussing their employees to work in a blacked-out van, but they left the warehouse itself virtually unprotected? It didn’t track. Unless they thought the surveillance was so intense they would know if anybody found out about the warehouse in enough time to do away with them…
“Let’s hurry,” John suggested to Derek, the back of his neck prickling, as though he could feel Skynet’s eyes on him.
Hurrying was difficult, however, as the warehouse proved to be a treasure-trove of information. The basement was crammed full of plans, diagrams, engineering sketches – a full-on, killing-machine-of-the-future operation. John went to work pulling hard drives, imagining the hours (probably days) of work ahead to crack the encryption codes, while Sarah and Cameron turned the filing cabinets, desk drawers, and closets inside out, searching for anything that might tell them more about Kaliba’s end-game. Derek busied himself rigging the explosives.
“Look at this.”
John had just shoved the last hard drive into his backpack when Sarah, having kicked over a bookshelf against the south wall, called out to them. John, Cameron and Derek rushed to her side.
A safe had been built into the wall. “I can hack the code,” John started, but Cameron side-stepped him and ripped the door off its hinges.
John winced, waiting for an alarm. None sounded, yet somehow, he had a feeling they had just alerted security somewhere.
Inside the safe was the perfectly-preserved metal hand of a T-888.
Sarah picked the limb up like it was a dead cat crawling with worms. John opened his backpack; she dropped it in on top of the hard drives, all the while staring hard at Cameron.
“You’re supposed to burn the endos,” John heard himself say to Cameron.
A thrill of doubt stabbed his heart. He smothered it. He would not start second-guessing Cameron’s loyalty again. She had her mission, and her mission was to protect him and to stop Skynet. And John had his priorities, none of which he could achieve without her.
“Save the girl” also meant “trust the girl.”
“We need to go,” Derek said. “The explosives are all set.” His uncle’s eyes roved the warehouse, and John suspected Derek shared his unease: This had all been way, way too easy.
They took the elevator back up to the lobby. Cameron tossed the guard, George, over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes and deposited him in the weeds a safe distance from the warehouse. The Connor/Reese crew climbed into Derek’s new pick-up, Derek driving, Sarah riding shotgun, John and Cameron in the back.
Derek held the detonator up. “Who wants to do the honors?”
Sarah looked at John. He bowed his head slightly. “You go ahead, Mom. Blowing stuff up is kind of your signature, isn’t it?”
Grinning wickedly, Sarah punched the button. “Take that, you sons of bitches,” she muttered, as a fireball engulfed Desert Canyon Heat and Air.
Later that night – technically early the next morning – John was still awake, sitting cross-legged on his bed, his hair damp from the shower. The hard drives from Desert Canyon were scattered across his floor. One was plugged into his laptop, and John was working doggedly to break through the encryption. The firewalls went beyond military-grade. Whatever Kaliba had been building out there in the desert, it did not want to share that information with the world at large.
The Terminator arm was on the floor, buried underneath a pile of dirty laundry. John was trying not to think about it. There were a million explanations for where it had come from, of course, but he knew which explanation his mother was going to jump on: Cameron. And if she found out that Cameron had been storing spare Terminator parts in the garage, had stowed a Terminator cadaver out in the country for John to learn on…
Well, the explosion at Desert Canyon would look like a fireworks display compared to Sarah’s reaction.
Cameron tapped on his doorframe. “Are you busy?”
John motioned for her to come in. She was still wearing the black yoga pants and T-shirt, but she’d removed her baseball cap. She reminded him of a sleek black panther as she sidled over to the bed and scooted onto it beside him.
“What did you find?” she asked.
John swiveled the laptop screen so she could see, too. “It’s a gold mine,” he announced. “It’s going to take me some time to get through all the encryption, but from the few files I have been able to open, I’d say it’s a safe bet that Desert Canyon and Kaliba are building Skynet. They’ve got a warehouse in Vancouver that takes in weekly shipments of Coltan.”
He turned his head to look at her, and whatever he was about to say next flew right out of his mind: Her lovely face was inches from his, her dark eyes not on the screen but on him. John forgot all about Skynet, about Kaliba, about Coltan – he nearly forgot how to breathe.
Damn, she was gorgeous.
He knew what he wanted to do, but he couldn’t be sure about her, so John summoned his courage and asked, rather shakily, “Cameron, can I kiss you?”
Eyes on his, Cameron said, simply, “Yes.”
John lifted one slightly-trembling hand and cupped her chin. He leaned in close, skimming his nose along her cheek, breathing deeply of her. He drew out the anticipation, enjoying the frantic pounding of his heart. She was watching him, curious, patient.
“Close your eyes,” he murmured.
“Just trust me.”
Obediently, Cameron let her eyelids drift shut. John touched his lips to the corner of her mouth. I love you, he thought. Then he kissed her.
Slowly, savoring every second, John pressed his lips firmly to Cameron’s. She returned the pressure. His hand dropped from her chin to her shoulder, traced down her bare arm, lifted her hand and placed it on his hip; she angled toward him, her body pressing into his. Damn, that felt good. John slid his fingers into her curtain of silky dark hair, tilted her head back just a bit. His tongue moved across her lips, and she responded in kind, sending a delicious shiver through him.
More than anything he wanted to lay her back on the pillows and make love to her right then. He pulled her tighter against him, until she was halfway on top of him, and he had to stifle a moan when she moved her hips over his.
His sixteen-year-old body was screaming for satisfaction. But his heart said, Take it slow, and John forced himself to listen. He wanted more than physical gratification. He wanted to woo her, wanted to seduce her, wanted her to want him the way he wanted her.
He wanted her to fall in love with him. And deep down, John knew she wasn’t there yet.
Yet being the operative word.
So, after several wonderful minutes in which John’s heart transformed into a fluttering sparrow behind his ribs, his mouth fused with Cameron’s, her tongue darting out to meet his, he found the willpower to drag his lips away from hers.
Breathing raggedly, John rested his forehead against Cameron’s. “We’d better stop,” he whispered.
Such an innocent, straight-forward question. John laughed shakily. “Because I really, really don’t want to.”
That adorably quizzical look filled her eyes. “I don’t understand.”
“I know. Just trust me.” John moved his laptop to the floor, switched off his bedside lamp, and stretched out on top of the covers, guiding Cameron’s head down to his chest. She curled against his side, wrapping one arm around his body. With his fingertips, he traced slow circles on her silky-smooth shoulder.
“Cameron,” he asked quietly, “do you like kissing me?”
So unabashed, so immediate. He smiled in the dark, staring up at the universe of glow-in-the-dark stars fixed on the ceiling over his bed. “Do you want to kiss me?”
“I don’t understand.”
“When I come into a room and you’re there, a lot of times I want to walk over and kiss you. Do you ever feel that way about me? Like, if I didn’t come over and kiss you, you would still want to come over and kiss me?”
He could feel her amazing brain working as she puzzled over his question. “Are you asking me if I have desire?”
The word – desire – made him blush, but he nodded. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
“I can evaluate experiences once I’ve had them. Some experiences I would choose to repeat. Some I wouldn’t.” She paused. “Kissing you is an experience I would choose to repeat.”
Meaning she wanted him, too. John’s smile was so wide it made his jaw ache.
“Are we going to tell Sarah about Riley tomorrow?” Cameron inquired after a while.
John sighed. “Yes.” Unfortunately, he had no excuse to keep putting that conversation off.
“And about James Ellison?”
“Are you worried?”
“About the Riley thing, no.” His mother was not going to authorize the execution of a sixteen-year-old kid, John understood that much about Sarah. “About Ellison, a little. She may go nuclear on me, so just be prepared.”
“She won’t go nuclear on you,” Cameron assured him. “I’ll protect you.”
He smiled at that. “Thanks.”
“It was important, what we did tonight at the warehouse. It was a good mission.”
“Yeah, I think we did some damage.” John’s eyes strayed to the Terminator arm covered over by his dirty clothes. Another stab of doubt pricked his heart. He stared down at the top of Cameron’s head, hating himself for what he was about to ask – yet knowing he couldn’t become John Connor, leader of the human Resistance, if he didn’t.
Saving the girl meant trusting the girl. But Cameron did lie to him sometimes.
“Cameron,” he said, choosing his words with care, “the T-triple-eight hand we found in the warehouse…You don’t know anything about how that got there, do you?”
“Because if you did, if there was anything you needed to tell me, I’d understand.”
Cameron sat up, frowning. “I keep the parts for self-repair and for research. That’s all.”
“Okay,” he said quickly, reaching up to brush her cheek with the back of his fingers. “I believe you.” And he did.
She gazed down at him. “It’s late. You need to sleep.”
“Mmm, yeah, I do.” John’s eyelids were suddenly heavy; he snuggled deeper into the pillows. “I’ll see you in the morning, okay?”
Tenderly, Cameron touched his lips with hers. “Sweet dreams.”