Chapter 9


Part I

Sarah took the news that Riley was from the future remarkably well, although John thought that might have been because, after Cameron’s good-morning-John kiss and Ellison’s revelations about Zeira Corp, her outrage meter was overloaded.

Derek, however, had a much more intense reaction.

When John reached the part about Riley meeting up with Commander Jesse Flores late Friday night, his uncle turned bone-white. “You’re sure?” Derek said to Cameron. “You’re sure you recognized this woman?”

“Yes,” Cameron said, unblinkingly. “I’m sure.”

“Why?” John pressed his uncle, curious. “Do you know her, in the future?”

Derek stood, scraping his fingers through his hair, a wild look in his eye. “I know her, in the future.” He paused. “And here. Now.”

John’s mouth dropped open. “You-you knew there was someone else here from the future, and you didn’t tell us? But why…?”

His uncle shot him a look, and John hastily shut up. Oh. That was why.

John chanced a glance at Cameron. Her lovely face was even more impassive than usual; it wasn’t just that she didn’t appear surprised in the least – she didn’t even seem agitated, like Derek’s deception wasn’t a revelation to her in the slightest. Had she known about Jesse and Derek? If so, why hadn’t she said anything?

Maybe she was protecting Derek, he reasoned. Or maybe she had been protecting him, John, not wanting him to think his uncle would betray him…

Sarah’s face was taut with rage. “The Mystery Woman,” she said, which meant nothing to John, but Derek nodded. He was looking at the floor, out the window, up at the ceiling, everywhere except at Sarah. John pitied his uncle in that moment. Being the target of Sarah Connor’s righteous anger on her son’s behalf was not a fun spot to occupy.

Or did he read something else in his mother’s eyes, too – some other kind of betrayal?

“I didn’t know about the girl,” Derek insisted. “I never saw Riley with Jesse, I swear it.”

“But you knew she was here, and you knew it had something to do with John,” Sarah said, in a steely voice that made Derek wince. “Why? What’s her mission?”

“She wouldn’t tell me particulars.” Derek’s eyes flicked over Cameron and John, side-by-side on the couch. “She said it had to do with the machine.”

“With Cameron?” John’s confusion swiftly changed over to fear. His shoulders tensed. “What was she planning to do to Cameron?”

“I don’t know, exactly,” Derek hedged.

“Give us the broad version, then,” John commanded, anger clipping his words. Nobody was going to hurt Cameron. Not even his uncle’s from-the-future girlfriend.

“She wanted to split the two of you apart. She said you’d come to rely on her,” John thought he sensed an implied it when Derek gestured at Cameron, “too much in the future. That your feelings were clouding your judgment.”

“Split us apart? How…?”

The awful truth struck John like a lightning bolt, choking off his question. Jesse had been acting as Riley’s pimp. She had put Riley in John’s path to distract him from Cameron.

He felt sick, thinking back on the not-so-long-ago night when Riley had kissed him in his truck. He had kissed her, too, and more. That whole time, Riley had been acting under orders, not out of desire. Christ, that was disgusting. She’d probably been thinking about somebody else the whole time, wishing he was someone she actually liked. And if he had given in, if he had let things go all the way…

John felt dirty and low, even though he hadn’t known it was all a mission, despite the fact that Rileyhad been the one deceiving him. He thought about Sideways Universe, what Riley had accused him of there. He would never, ever have taken advantage of her – or any other girl – like that. It just wasn’t in him.

“I want you to take me to this woman.” Sarah rose, spine rigid. “I want to know what she’s doing here, and I want to hear it from her. I assume you know where to find her.”

“A hotel, downtown,” Derek replied, still not meeting Sarah’s eye.

“What about Riley?” John asked.

“I don’t know.” Sarah was sliding a .9 millimeter into the waistband of her jeans. “It depends on what she’s really doing here, I guess. What this Jesse has to say.”

“Mom, this wasn’t…Whatever it was, it wasn’t Riley’s fault.” John swallowed hard. “We can’t just kill her.”

“I can kill her,” Cameron offered, quite helpfully.

“Nobody is killing anybody until we know more,” Sarah tabled, with a fierce look at Cameron. “You two stay here. I mean it, John. You stay put until I call you.” She headed for the door with Derek in tow, adding, “Work on those hard drives we pulled from Desert Canyon. We still have a mission to complete.”

Right. The mission: Stop Skynet, save the world. Like John could ever forget what he had been born to do.

As Derek’s truck roared out of the drive, Sarah behind the wheel, John put his head in his hands and sighed heavily. What a strange, strange day this had been – and it was barely noon.

Cameron’s fingers touched the back of his neck, softly. “You have a high level of stress,” she observed.

John snorted with laughter. Understatement. “Yeah, living with my mother will do that to you.” He smiled thinly at her. “I guess we should clean up the kitchen.”

Together, John and Cameron picked up the T-888 components Sarah had dumped onto the table and floor and returned them to the cardboard box. Keeping his hands busy helped distract John from what Jesse Flores might be telling his mother at that moment – and what it might mean for Riley.

“Mom will want us to burn all this,” John noted, as he placed the last piece in the box. “We’ll bury it out back. Maybe we’ll get a chance tomorrow to take this stuff out to St. Agnes, hide it with Stark’s chip and all of that.” He wasn’t doing away with Cameron’s cyborg first-aid kit, regardless of what his mom said.

“I’ll bury it,” Cameron said. “You’re not feeling well.”

Touched that she was concerned for him, John dropped a quick kiss on her forehead. “Okay. I’m gonna shower and then take a crack at the encryption on those hard drives again.”

Twenty minutes later, when he stepped out of a steaming shower feeling marginally less emotionally raw, John heard music coming from his bedroom. Hastily, he threw on clothes – after discovering Cameron in his bedroom when he’d been only towel-clad the previous week, John had started taking his clothes into the bathroom with him – and hurried down the hall.

Cameron was lying on his bed, staring up at the ceiling, toes tapping to some hideous Brittney Spears-esque pop song. A smile burst onto John’s face. She was so wonderfully girl-like sometimes.

“This song sucks,” he informed her.

“I like the tempo. It’s good for dancing.”

“You dance?”


Cameron sat up and snapped off the stereo. The way she was looking at him was so inviting, John had a very difficult time not pouncing on her. The mini-skirt left little to the imagination. He leaned against the doorframe with his arms folded across his chest. He had no willpower this morning, he could feel it; if he crawled onto the bed with her…Well, he wasn’t going to imagine what might happen, because such fantasies didn’t help with his determination that they both remain fully clothed.

“Does your head still hurt?” Cameron asked him.

“Not so much.” John touched his stitches. “I’d like to get these things out. They itch like crazy.”

“I can remove stitches.”

John had forgotten that Cameron was programmed to act as a field medic. “Would you mind?” he said. “Beats a trip back to the hospital.”

“No, I don’t mind.”

He sat on the edge of his bed while Cameron, kneeling behind him, snipped the end of the black thread and tugged gently. It stung a little, but not much. Wait ’til I tell Mom that Cameron and I played doctor this morning, he thought, and in spite of the awfulness of the day thus far, he laughed.

“What’s funny?” Cameron inquired.

“Nothing.” John tipped his head back and smiled up at her; she appeared so solemn, as always, perhaps even a little sad. He touched the tip of her nose with his finger. “I wish I knew what you were thinking.”

“I’m thinking about Riley.”

“Oh, yeah?” John was surprised – and intrigued. “What about Riley?”

“You said this wasn’t her fault.”

“I don’t think it was. I think she was just following orders.”

“But she lied to you.”

“I know that.”

“You got mad at me when I lied to you,” Cameron pointed out. “Was that my fault? My mission required it.”

John twisted around so he was lying back on the pillows; Cameron continued to kneel on the bed, watching him with somber dark eyes. He caught her hand and tried to pull her down with him. She resisted. Was she irritated with him because he’d defended Riley? A little smile played at the corners of John’s lips. He liked that she could be jealous – so long as it didn’t make her psychotic, like in Sideways Universe.

“You’re right, I shouldn’t have gotten mad at you,” he told her. “But I don’t want you to lie to me. I want you to be able to tell me anything.” A pause. “I want you to trust me.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Yes,” John replied, meaning it. “I trust you.”

Mollified, Cameron stretched out next to him. John stroked her hair, loving the silky-softness of the tendrils slipping between his fingers. Her nose skimmed his collarbone. John shivered. That whole no willpower thing was making itself felt; his skin tingled, hyper-attuned to her touch.

“What are you thinking?” Cameron asked, echoing his earlier query to her.

John twirled a lock of her hair around his finger while debating how to answer. What Derek had said, about Jesse coming back from the future to derail his relationship with Cameron, had gotten to him. He’d always imagined Future-John as the beloved warrior of the people, the hero celebrated everywhere he went. To think that maybe he wasn’t universally perceived as an omnipotent savior bothered John more than he cared to admit.

“Cameron, in the future, do people trust me?”

“Yes,” she answered.

“But they don’t always agree with me, do they?” he pressed her.

“No,” Cameron admitted. “People don’t always agree.”

“Then why do they follow me?”

“Because you lead,” she answered, simply.

John turned those three words over in his mind: Because you lead. Leading was what his mother did; it was why he followed her, although he had often questioned her choices, often wanted to rebel. Sarah led, with a strength of purpose and a courage of conviction that inspired a devotion deeper than love.

Leaders had to make tough choices. They had to sacrifice. They had to know when to be ruthless and when to show mercy. Like with Riley.

Abruptly, John sat up. All at once, he knew what he had to do. He couldn’t wait around for his mother to decide Riley’s fate. Riley wasn’t evil. She was a pawn in Jesse Flores’ game.

Deep down, John knew what was right: He had seen it, in Sideways Universe – the way to help Riley.

“Come on,” he said to Cameron.

“Where are we going?” she wanted to know, following him down the stairs. “Your mother said to stay here.”

“I know what Mom said,” John shrugged. “But Mom isn’t in charge today. I am.”

Part II

During their whirlwind romance, Sarah, in a fit of nineteen-year-old insecurity, had asked Kyle Reese what the women in his time were like. “Strong,” he had said. “Good fighters.” After meeting Commander Jesse Flores, Sarah thought rather sourly that he’d neglected to mention drop-dead gorgeous, too. She wondered for maybe the millionth time in the last seventeen years what Kyle had seen in her, plain old Sarah Connor.

Jesse didn’t seem terribly surprised by Sarah and Derek’s visit, though whether that was because she had known the jig would eventually be up or because years of post-apocalyptic war had simply made her unflappable, Sarah couldn’t tell. Jesse showed them in to her suite and took a seat on the couch. Derek and Sarah sat in chairs across from her, rather purposefully not looking at one another. They hadn’t spoken the entire ride, aside from Derek giving her directions.

“So the girl talked,” Jesse started, mildly.

“She didn’t have to,” Sarah cut across her. “John figured it out. He followed her. The machine recognized you.”

Jesse’s sardonic smile faltered. “The machine. Right.”

“We need to know why you’re here, Jesse. The truth, all of it.” That was Derek, speaking softly, but not, Sarah noted, with tenderness. Rather, he seemed to be barely controlling an icy rage, like if he spoke at full volume, he might start screaming.

Jesse considered him. At length, she said, “I’m not AWOL.”

“Then why did Connor send you here?” Derek demanded.

“To find the Kaliba Group.” Jesse reached out to open a hidden drawer beneath the coffee table; Sarah swiftly pulled her .9 millimeter and aimed it at the other woman’s chest. Raising her hands, Jesse carefully scooted back on the couch, saying, “There’s a file in the drawer.”

Derek retrieved it. Reluctantly, Sarah lowered her gun. Give me a reason, you meddling bitch, her eyes told Jesse, who was watching her with a smidge more wariness now.

“After you left,” Jesse went on, addressing Derek, “we got intel that Kaliba is the one to build Skynet. Connor sent me back here to take out their headquarters in San Francisco.”

“San Francisco?” Derek echoed. “This is L.A.”

“Yeah, well, screw Connor’s orders,” Jesse said bitterly. “They’re not ‘Connor’s orders,’ anyway. They come from the damn machine. You can’t even get in to talk to Connor these days, did you know that? You have to talk to the metal, because – and this is a quote – it’s the same as talking to him.”

“Jesse, Connor uses the metal. That doesn’t mean it’s in charge.”

“Uses it?” Jesse laughed mirthlessly. “That little metal bitch goes everywhere with him, Derek. You’ve seen how he is with her. I bet it even shares his bed.”

Sarah’s cheeks flamed. This woman was talking about her son – her sweet, beautiful, brave, amazing son – like he was some kind of deviant. She wanted to slap her.

But then it occurred to her: Have I been making John feel that way about himself?

Her stomach churned. Sarah didn’t understand what made John care for the machine, and she worried that the Terminator was manipulating him to her own ends, yet she had never seen her son as perverted. John loved. He was capable of more love than any kid who had been through everything he had been through should have been. To John, Cameron wasn’t just a machine. She was a unique being, with her own spark, her own personality, her own worth.

Why it had taken someone else criticizing her son’s choice to make her see that, Sarah wasn’t sure, but the revelation occurred all the same.

Derek was saying, “So you were just going to whore this poor kid Riley out? Have her shake her tail in John’s face until he stopped looking at Cameron? Christ, Jesse,” he threw the file on the table in disgust, “Connor sends you back here to stop Skynet and you decide to orchestrate a teenage soap opera instead?”

“No,” Sarah put in, fury scalding her as the pieces clicked into place. Jesse glanced at her, and whatever lie she’d been about to tell died on her blood-red lips. “She wasn’t orchestrating a soap opera. She was orchestrating a hit.”

Derek looked from Sarah to Jesse. “You wouldn’t – Sarah, Jesse wouldn’t kill John Connor.”

“Not John,” Sarah said.

Horrified understanding dawned in Derek’s blue eyes. “The girl,” he said tonelessly. “You were going to have the metal kill the girl.”

Jesse at least had the decency to appear shame-faced. “He needs to see what it is,” she insisted, her voice quavering a little. “He needs to understand what they do.”

“Who are you?” Derek whispered.

“I’m Jesse.” Tears sparkled in the woman’s eyes; she reached for his hand, but Derek wrenched away from her. Got to his feet and stood, arms held stiffly at his sides. Jesse looked pleadingly into his face. “Baby, I’m Jesse.”

“Not my Jesse,” Derek tabled, and the pain behind those words knifed between Sarah’s ribs. “You were never my Jesse.”

Stunned silence followed the slamming of the hotel room door as Derek marched out.

Well, this was awkward.

Sarah cleared her throat. Jesse looked at her, the cynicism in her gaze replaced by stark grief. “I’ll take that,” Sarah said, pointing to the file. Wordlessly, Jesse handed it over.

Part of Sarah wanted to put a bullet in Jesse Flores’ brain. Riley had never been Sarah’s favorite person – she was too flighty, too superficial – but she was still an innocent kid, and Jesse had been setting her up to die, not to mention maneuvering John to lose yet another person he cared for. Nonetheless, part of Sarah pitied this woman. There was a black hole of loss deep inside of Jesse Flores, anyone could see that. Instinct told Sarah that Jesse was not a danger to John, if she could be kept from any further scheming.

If anything, Jesse seemed more likely to self-destruct.

Saving the world from Judgment Day on very rare occasions afforded Sarah the chance to save one individual person along the way. Many times over the last sixteen years, she had deliberately bypassed those opportunities, knowing deep down that saving her son was more important. Maybe it was the changes she had seen in John since his blackout. Maybe it was this woman’s connection to Derek and therefore, albeit tangentially, to Kyle. Whatever the reason, Sarah made a decision: to offer Jesse Flores a life-line.

Coolly, Sarah announced, “You have two choices. You can leave L.A. and never set foot near my son again, or you can help us finish the work John sent you here to do.”

“You would work with me?” Jesse seemed genuinely startled.

“I don’t trust you,” Sarah said, without apology. “But if John sent you back here, then he must believe you’re someone we could use. You have Derek’s number. Call us if you want in.”

Halfway out the door, Sarah turned back. “Whatever you choose,” she warned, “if you ever try to hurt my son again, in any way, you won’t have to worry about the cyborg. I’ll kill you myself.”

Part III

Riley did a double-take when she spotted John leaning against the passenger’s side of the Connor’s SUV. For a moment, her eyes lit up with unmistakable happiness, making John question whether her interest in him had all been an act after all.

Then she noticed Cameron behind the wheel, and her expression morphed into one of mortal terror.

Riley crossed the busy school parking lot, filled with students rushing to grab a bite of lunch off-campus, like a condemned woman marching to the gallows. “Hi, John,” she greeted him with a tremulous smile. “What brings you to the land of hall monitors and in-school detentions?”

Steadily, John replied, “I thought we could go somewhere and talk.”

Riley’s gaze darted over his shoulder to Cameron. She backed up a step. “Oh, well, you know, I’ve got this huge geometry test in sixth period. I probably shouldn’t ditch today. Maybe I could call you later?”

John grasped her firmly by the wrist and opened the back door. One thing he knew for certain: Riley wouldn’t cause a scene that might attract unwanted attention to John Connor.

“Come on,” he urged, playing along with the fiction that she had a choice. “You suck at geometry. Might as well skip the test and take the F.”

“Boy, way to boost a girl’s confidence,” Riley muttered, making a valiant effort to keep her dryly cynical façade in place. She let John hand her into the backseat. He climbed in behind her.

Cameron drove north out of the city, along the coast. Riley forced a bubbly smile. “I like your hat,” she said to Cameron.

“Thank you.” Cameron brushed her hair behind her ears, adjusting the Lakers ball cap. “John bought it for me.”

“So where are we going?”

“To see a friend of ours,” John answered. He angled on the seat so Riley had to look at him; her pretty eyes glistened with tears, and he felt bad for how terrified she was. Yet he didn’t know how to make her less afraid. This was a serious situation. He had serious questions. And a lot about Riley’s fate depended on the answers she gave.

“Riley,” he started, “when we went to Mexico, do you remember a man there calling me ‘John Connor’?”

“Sure I do. The man with the camera. But that was just a mistake.” Riley laughed, a nervous, almost hysterical giggle. “He mistook you for someone else. You’re John Baum.”

She sounded desperate for him to agree to that. Instead, John told her quietly, “You can stop pretending. I know about Jesse.”

The color drained from Riley’s face. “How…?”

“We followed you.”

From the front seat, Cameron informed her, “Your movements weren’t hard to track. You should vary your routine more.”

Riley looked panic-stricken. John picked up her hand, half-afraid she might leap out of the moving vehicle. “I need you to tell me the truth now,” he said firmly. “I need you to tell me everything, from the beginning.”

Riley stared down at their interlaced fingers. “I’m sorry, John,” she whispered.

“It wasn’t your fault.” That was Cameron. “You lied to John because your mission required it. He isn’t mad at you.”

John smiled to himself. Leave it to Cameron to cut right through the emotional b.s. and get straight to the heart of the matter.

“You’re not going to kill me?” Riley asked in a small voice, her eyes on Cameron’s in the rearview mirror.

“John doesn’t want me to,” Cameron responded, rather evasively. “He doesn’t think you’re a threat.”

“A threat?” Riley sounded horrified. “I – no, John, I would never…I could never hurt you.”

“Then tell us,” John prompted her gently. “Tell us why you’re here.”

So she did. The miles flew past, tree-lined suburbs giving way to long stretches of sandy beaches, while Riley poured out the whole sordid tale: Jesse had discovered her, hungry and alone, in a tunnel following a Skynet raid on a civilian outpost; she had befriended the younger girl, promised to take her back to the world before Judgment Day; she had bribed a bubble tech to send Riley with her on her mission, even though Connor hadn’t authorized the younger girl’s jump.

“It wasn’t until we were back here that she told me why she’d really brought me with her,” Riley finished. “She made it sound like what we were doing was crucial. She was furious when you broke up with me. She kept saying I needed to make you love me, but I told her it wouldn’t work. I could tell, that day at the mall. You were so…different.”

Cameron had turned off the main road. “We’re here,” she announced, shutting off the engine.

Riley gawked out the windshield. “What is this place? It’s beautiful.”

A picturesque lighthouse rose into the blue sky in front of them. Behind it, a wooden dock ran down to a pier, where a small fishing boat was moored. A yellow lab raced along the beach, frisking in the waves; a tall, handsome man in a flannel shirt picked up a Frisbee and tossed it, laughing as the dog bounded to retrieve it.

“Cameron,” John said, “can you go tell Charlie we’re here?”

Cameron’s eyes met his in the rearview mirror. John held his breath. Moment of truth: Either Riley’s story had convinced Cameron that she posed no danger to John, or it hadn’t, in which case they would be using Charlie’s boat to dispose of a body.

John let Cameron decide. It might have been the most difficult second of his life, knowing that if Cameron pulled her gun, he might not be able to go through with it – he might dive on top of Riley, might scream that his life wasn’t more important than hers. But he stuck it out. He had sent Cameron back to protect him; he had to trust her to do her job, the way he wanted her to trust him to do his.

After a seemingly endless silence, Cameron opened her door. “I’ll be back,” she said.

John released the breath he’d been holding.

He was still holding Riley’s hand. She squeezed his fingers, bringing his attention back to her. “Jesse was wrong about you,” she told him.

“In what way?”

“She made it sound like you weren’t in control. Like Cameron is the one in charge. I tried to tell her that’s not how it is.” Riley drew her hand out of John’s and tenderly touched his cheek. “I think you belong with her.”

If she sounded disappointed by that, John couldn’t help being a little flattered.

“She doesn’t control you. She makes you better. More you. The real you, I mean – not the ‘you’ you tried to be with me.”

“Riley,” John began, wondering how to apologize for everything that had happened between them.

Riley pressed a finger to his lips, silencing him. “It’s okay. I did my fair share of hiding the real me, too.” She offered a wistful smile. “People suck, right?”

“Yeah,” John agreed. He caught her fingers and brushed a quick, forgiving kiss across her knuckles. “People suck.”

A sudden flash: He was standing in a morgue, shivering with more than cold, gazing down at Riley’s lifeless body on the metal tray, pressing her hand against his cheek. “I’m sorry,” he heard himself whisper…

John blinked back to the present reality, practically trembling from the weight of his vision. Was that how things would have happened, without his trip to Sideways Universe?

Charlie and Cameron were making their way up the beach toward the SUV. “Who is this guy, anyway?” Riley asked. “He looks too nice to be another Terminator bodyguard.”

“His name is Charlie Dixon. He’s a great person. I trust him to take care of things that are important to me.” John nudged her with his elbow. “Like a friend who needs a safe place to figure things out.”

“If he’s a friend of yours, what makes you think he’ll want to help me? I did lie to you from the moment I met you.”

John pictured Sideways Universe: Charlie looking lovingly at his teenage daughter, Riley Dixon. “Let’s just say I have a good feeling about it,” he smiled.

Part IV

The sun had set by the time Cameron turned into the drive. As she shut off the engine, John turned to her and said, “Thank you.”

Cameron tilted her head to the side. “For what?”

“For trusting me to do what was right with Riley.” He looked away, out the window, into the gathering twilight gloom. “Enough people have died in the name of John Connor. I didn’t want Riley to end up more collateral damage.”

“She’ll be safe with Charlie. He’ll keep an eye on her.”

The front door opened, and Sarah stepped out. Her expression was livid. Resignedly, John said, “C’mon. We’d better go deal with my mother.” Thinking, No good deed goes unpunished…

They mounted the steps hand-in-hand. “Are you going to go nuclear on John?” Cameron inquired of Sarah, rather conversationally.

“That depends on where you’ve been,” Sarah snipped.

“We picked up Riley,” John said. “We took her someplace safe.” He raised his chin, letting his mother see his defiance: He had made the call, because it was his call to make.

“And you couldn’t have left a note?”

Well, crap. She wasn’t mad; she was worried. Or, rather, she was mad because she was worried. “Oh…sorry. We left in a hurry.” John scuffed the toe of his tennis shoe along the step, feeling guilty. “I didn’t mean to scare you, Mom.”

Sarah turned to Cameron. John could see what an effort it took for her to say with (albeit frosty) politeness, “I need a minute with my son, alone.”

Cameron arched a questioning eyebrow at John. He nodded, as if to say, I’ll be okay, and she slid smoothly past Sarah into the house.

“Let me talk to him.” Derek stepped out onto the stoop behind Sarah, adding, “Please.”

Sarah’s jaw clenched so tightly, John thought her teeth might break. “Fine,” she said, almost without moving her lips, and disappeared inside.

Derek and John were quiet as they strolled down the lane fronting the Connor/Reese residence. “You did the right thing, hiding the girl,” Derek finally said.

“Thanks.” John was surprised. He’d expected an ass-chewing, not praise.

“Your mom thinks so, too. She just has a hard time letting anybody else be in charge.”

“You noticed that, huh?”

They shared a grin.

“Look, John, I owe you an apology.”

They’d reached the end of the lane. Derek stared out at the quiet street, probably imagining how this neighborhood looked in the future – burnt buildings and bleached bones.

“You don’t have to explain anything to me,” John told Derek. He meant it. “You stood up for me and Cameron to Mom. You trusted my judgment, even though you’ve seen me make mistakes. I should do the same for you.”

“But it’s not the same. You – future-you, I mean – didn’t send me back here for a romantic rendezvous. You sent me back to stop Skynet. I got distracted.” Derek kicked a rock into the road. “It’s this place. It makes you soft.”

Derek Reese, soft? “You still seem pretty bad-ass to me,” John said. Derek chuckled. “And I’m not mad about Jesse, so you can stop beating yourself up over it.”

Derek mulled that over. At length, he said, “So this thing with you and Cameron. How long has that been going on?”

Lovely. They were going to have The Talk after all.

John steeled himself for his uncle’s diatribe on why machines were evil. “I’ve had feelings for her for a long time, I guess. I tried not to. But after the accident…” He trailed off, unsure how to explain. He didn’t want it to sound like he’d had some wet-dream about Cameron and then decided to act out that fantasy in the real world. Finally, he settled on, “Maybe I just got my priorities straight.”

“You know it’s not a person, right?”

“I know that.” And John did. That fact just didn’t matter to him like it did to his uncle and his mother.

“Do you know why you sent Cameron back here?” Derek turned so John had to look him in the eye. “It’s the same reason you started reprogramming metal in the first place. Because she’s replaceable. Every machine is replaceable. People aren’t.”

That’s not true, John wanted to say. Maybe that’s why I did it to start with, but I understand the machines better now. Each one is unique, just like each person is unique.

But John knew, after all he’d suffered, after all he’d lost, Derek could never accept that. So he offered the only rationale he thought his uncle, and perhaps his mother, would understand.

“Every person I bring into my life, I put them in danger,” John said. “My mother, my father, my foster parents, Charlie, Riley, you. Cameron can handle that danger. I don’t have to feel guilty for loving her. I can just be me, John Connor, and she can handle that.”

“You know, I used to think Kyle was nuts, carrying around that picture of your mom. He used to say to me, ‘Derek, you can’t help who you fall in love with.'”

John smiled, remembering his dream as he’d awoke from Sideways Universe – sitting with Kyle Reese in the park, having a father-son chat. His father had told him then that, having fallen in love with the picture of a woman who had been dead for years, he wasn’t in a position to judge John’s feelings for Cameron. That conversation (such as it was) more than anything had allowed John to follow the path he was on now.

“The question is,” Derek continued, “can she love you, too? Can she really, truly feel for you what you feel for her?”

John understood what Derek was asking: Could something that had been programmed to kill human beings learn to love?

“I don’t know,” was John’s ultimate – and absolutely honest – response. “But I have to believe that she can.”

Derek studied him for another long moment, seeming to reach some sort of conclusion at last. “Okay, then,” he shrugged. “Do what you gotta do.”

“Thanks, Derek,” John said. “For being on my side.”

Derek nodded. “Always am.”

Next Chapter


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