But I don’t want to go among mad people, Alice remarked.
Oh, you can’t help that, said the Cat. We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.
How do you know I’m mad? said Alice.
You must be, said the Cat, or you wouldn’t have come here. – Alice in Wonderland
They had Cameron strapped to a cot in a room down the hall from John’s.
Leather restraints pinned her arms at her sides; a strap across her chest prevented her from sitting up; her ankles were free, but she wasn’t kicking. In fact, she wasn’t struggling at all: She was just staring unseeingly at the ceiling. It reminded John of the time he’d removed her chip so she could implant a virus in the new LAPD traffic system – how she’d laid on his bed, deactivated, a lovely, lifeless doll.
He’d wanted to kiss her then. Just once, on the lips, to see if they were as soft as they looked. Like it didn’t count as a kiss if she wasn’t awake. If no one ever knew.
“Why is she tied down?” Derek demanded of Dr. Sherman, placing a hand on John’s arm when he started toward the bed. “I thought you said she wasn’t dangerous.”
“Cameron was only readmitted last night,” Dr. Sherman explained. “She ran away two weeks ago. Trust me, that’s not unusual for her. The police found her smashing windows at a department store about one this morning. She was agitated when they brought her in, and it’s our policy to restrain the more violent patients until the medicines have a chance to take effect. It’s more to keep them from hurting themselves than anything.”
“I want to talk to her,” John insisted, pulling away from his uncle. “She can’t even sit up. She’s not going to hurt me.”
Of course Cameron could break the restraints anytime she chose, but John wasn’t going to tell the doctor that if he didn’t already know.
No one stopped him as he walked over to the bed and perched beside Cameron. He heard his mother ask Sherman, “What’s her name? Her full name, I mean.”
“Cameron Phillips. She’s been a patient here off and on for three years, since her first psychotic break. She started killing birds. Snapping their necks with her bare hands.”
“How awful. Her parents?”
“Loving, but overwhelmed. She’s too much to handle at home. I’m afraid with a condition like hers, permanent hospitalization is often the only option.”
“I want to talk to her alone,” John said, without taking his gaze off Cameron. She wasn’t deactivated. He could see the spark of life in her dark eyes; she was listening to them, she just wasn’t responding. He wanted to know why she was pretending to be helpless. He wanted her to tell him what the hell was going on.
Dr. Sherman herded Derek and Sarah toward the door. “They’ll be fine,” the doctor assured them. He paused on the threshold, adding, “John, don’t touch those restraints. If you do, I’ll have to consider you a danger to other patients, and you’ll be strapped down as well. Got it?”
The instant the door closed behind the adults, Cameron blinked and smiled at him. “Hi,” she said.
His heart melted, the way it always did when Cameron smiled at him. “Hi,” he said back.
A brief silence followed in which they continued to look at one another. This was actually not unusual for John and Cameron – long silences when they stared mutely into one another’s faces. Cameron was always lurking nearby, guarding him, and she was so beautiful, it was hard not to stare at her; she stared at him, too, because she liked to study his movements, to learn “how not to be a freak,” as she put it, using his words.
He knew those eyes. The intelligence looking back at him was not that of a normal teenage girl. This was Cameron, his Cameron. John was sure of it.
“What’s going on?” he asked her. “Why are we in here? What’s wrong with my mom and Derek?”
“I still don’t know,” Cameron replied. “I got out, like you wanted me to, but I couldn’t find out how Skynet convinced your mother to put you in here. I couldn’t find out how to make her remember what’s real.”
“Why did you let them do this to you?” John ran a finger lightly over the back of her hand, just above the restraint.
“I had to let them catch me, so I could get back to you.” Cameron tilted her head to one side, studying him. “Remember? You said,” and here she mimicked his voice with remarkable accuracy, “we should stay here until we figure out what Skynet is up to.” Her voice returned to its normal pitch. “I had to let them restrain me, or they would’ve put me downstairs in the solitary cells, and I wouldn’t have been allowed to see you.”
She talked like she had some experience with solitary confinement. “I don’t remember any of this,” John confessed. “I don’t remember coming here or telling you to escape. I just woke up this morning and everything’s upside down.”
“Did you take the pills they gave you?”
“I don’t remember.”
“The pills make you forget.”
“Who you are. How you got here. Everything.” Cameron frowned. “Sometimes I have trouble remembering. I think there’s still damage to my chip, from the explosion.”
I’m Allison, John heard her say, that terrible day when he’d discovered her at some god-awful teen rescue, suffering complete and total amnesia. He prayed she could hold it together for now. He couldn’t get out of this alone.
“How soon until they let you out of these things?” he asked, meaning the restraints.
“Twenty-four hours from the time of readmission. Time enough for the meds to work.”
“But the meds don’t work on you.”
“No,” Cameron confirmed simply. “The meds don’t work on me.” She wiggled her fingers, and invitation, and John slipped his fingers into hers. She squeezed his hand, a reassuring pressure. “Everything is going to be fine, John. We’ll get to the bottom of it. We always do.”
Pretending to be a crazy person wasn’t that much different from pretending to be a normal teenage boy, since John was neither. Over the years of different schools, different foster homes, different countries, he’d learned to blend in with his surroundings. He was an adept imitator, a human chameleon. Within two days, he had perfected the zombie-shuffle and vacant stare of the heavily medicated. The nurses and orderlies barely glanced at him. He might have been invisible.
Except in Sherman’s office. There John was very much in the spotlight. What the doctor didn’t know, however, was that John was using those sessions to pump him for far more information than he gave.
Sherman was convinced that John was close to a breakthrough, especially since, after leaving Cameron’s room, he’d lied through his teeth and announced that he thought he might have been wrong about things after all, that he thought maybe Cameron wasn’t a Terminator. After that, the doctor had scheduled twice-daily therapy sessions with John in his office.
Cameron had not yet been released onto the ward. Something about a disturbance when one of the orderlies had tried to remove her restraints. Sherman wouldn’t allow John back in to see her, either. “She’s become convinced of your delusion,” the doctor told him, when John demanded to know why he couldn’t visit. “She believes she’s a Terminator, sent back from the future to protect you. The more time you spend with Cameron is less time you’re spending getting back to reality.”
John tried not to worry about her. She was a Terminator. She could take care of herself.
He worried about her anyway.
On the third day since the accident (which no one else remembered, yet that was how John marked his days), Sherman snapped his file closed halfway through their session and declared, “I think you’re playing me, John.”
Startled, John took a moment to consider his response. He was sitting cross-legged on the black leather couch in Sherman’s office, the window at his back. “Playing you how?” he asked, stalling.
“I don’t think you believe for one second that any of what I’m telling you is true. I don’t think you believe that your mother, Sarah Connor, met your father when she was a 19-year-old waitress hoping for her big break in the showbiz world, or that your father was a millionaire playboy from the East Coast working out his rock star phase, or that he left her when he found out she was pregnant. I don’t think you believe that your uncle, Derek Reese, tracked her down when he found out about the baby and insisted on helping to raise you, the way his brother should have done. I’m fairly certain,” the doctor concluded, “that you still believe you’re John Connor, the savior of mankind, and you’re biding your time until you figure out a way to escape from this place.”
“You talk like you know me pretty well,” John shot back. Mentally, he cursed himself for being so smug, thinking he had the wool pulled over his shrink’s eyes. “Exactly how long have I been here?”
“You came in the first time right after the police returned you to your mother,” Sherman replied. “You were eleven, and you couldn’t sleep. Nightmares. Not uncommon for a child who’d been through what you’d been through. Since then, your mother has committed you here twice, counting this time.”
“Why? Did I start spouting off about robots from the future?” John asked. His words were laced with bitterness, which he knew wasn’t helping his case for sanity, but he was just so incredibly frustrated by the whole absurd situation.
“Partly, yes, although you were talking about the robots when you came in the first time, right after your rescue. I hoped then that reality would be more powerful than the fantasy your abductor had planted in your mind. But when you were thirteen, you attacked a substitute teacher with a pair of scissors because you believed he was a Terminator. You spent a year with us here after that.”
“And this time?”
“About three months ago, you tried to kill yourself.”
For a brief second, John flashed back to a room in a rented house, a pistol in his hand, the muzzle aimed at his face. One bullet would do it, he’d heard a voice in his head say, a voice he didn’t recognize. No more running. No more fighting. No more lying. No more future.
“You’re remembering something.”
John scowled at Sherman. Screw his perceptiveness. “You don’t know me,” John told him baldly, anger boiling to the surface. “You don’t know what I believe. You don’t know what I remember.”
“I want to show you something.” Sherman rose and motioned for John to follow him to his desk. He unlocked the bottom drawer and selected a DVD from a pile of disks, each neatly labeled with a patient’s name. John glimpsed Phillips, Cameron, and his heart gave a tiny jump.
The doctor loaded the DVD into his computer. John folded his arms across his chest, refusing to show how curious he was, but he blanched when his own face appeared on the screen.
He was sitting in this office, cross-legged on the couch, twisting his hands together in his lap. The date-stamp in the corner was five days ago.
Off-camera, Sherman prompted, “Tell me what you remember about the man who abducted you, John.”
“I remember…He said to call him Uncle Bob. He rode a motorcycle. He had a gun. A big gun. A shotgun. He carried it like it was nothing, and I thought nobody human could carry a gun that big so easily.”
“Nobody human. Did you think he was a machine, straightaway?”
“No, I thought he was a monster.” The John on the tape gave a brittle, mirthless laugh. “I didn’t think of him as a machine until we got back to the warehouse where he-he kept me. When he took his jacket off, he had a metal arm.”
“A metal arm?” Sherman sounded the slightest bit dubious.
“It was a prosthetic, obviously. But it was metal, not skin, like maybe it hadn’t been totally finished or whatever. So when he told me he was a robot, I believed him, because of the arm.”
“And what do you believe now?”
The John on the tape looked straight at the camera. “I was right the first time. He was a monster. But he wasn’t a machine. He was just a sick, twisted person who liked to hurt little kids.”
The screen went black. Sherman faced John, who was struggling to rearrange his expression into something other than absolute, mind-numbing terror.
“You see, John?” the doctor prodded gently. “I know what you believe, what you remember, because you told me, not a week ago, right here in this room, that Skynet isn’t real.”
John reeled backwards, bracing himself against the wall to keep from crumpling to the floor. Could this actually be happening? Was he crazy? Had he imagined Skynet, Cyberdine, Judgment Day, all of it?
But what about Cameron? he argued with himself. Why would Cameron believe she’s a Terminator if I made this all up?
We all die for you, Derek had said to him once. John knew he had a certain charisma, a way with people. He had learned that he could turn his tortured eyes on people, address them earnestly, and usually get what he wanted. It was a trick that never worked on his mother, because she had the best bullshit radar of anyone John had ever known, and it wasn’t a trick that worked on Sherman, either, apparently. But what about a poor, screwed-up girl who already happened to be out-of-touch with reality? Maybe his John Connor charm had worked on Cameron Phillips. Maybe he had convinced her that she was a machine from the future when she really wasn’t.
There was a way to know for sure, of course, but that required cutting her open to get a look at the metal underneath, and mental patients weren’t allowed sharp implements.
“When I first met you, you were eleven years old, and you had just lived through hell,” Sherman said quietly. John found it difficult to meet the doctor’s eye; his usual shield of anger had evaporated, leaving him exposed and vulnerable. “The first thing you said to me was that you should have tried harder to get away. I told you then that you had done exactly what you were supposed to do: survive. What tears me up inside, John, is that you’re still surviving. You’re still trapped inside this nightmare. It’s time to let yourself wake up.”
Michelle, the nicest nurse on the ward, tapped on John’s door later that night. “Hi, honey,” she greeted him. “Feeling okay?”
John liked Michelle. She was blonde and pretty, and she had a sunny smile that reminded him of his favorite fourth-grade teacher, a woman named – rather ironically for a teacher – Mrs. Apple. She worked evenings, three-to-eleven, and she came by every night before she left to say goodbye, to make sure he didn’t need anything before lights-out. The nuthouse version of being tucked in, John supposed.
“I’m good.” A lie, but a practiced one. “I already took my pills.” Also a lie: He had tongued his pills, then spit them out in the toilet.
“I know, sweetie. You’re one of my model patients.” Michelle patted his head in a motherly way that made John painfully homesick for his own mother – the real one, not this sideways universe Sarah.
“I really came by to tell you that you have a visitor.”
Michelle stepped aside and Cameron eased into the room, impossibly beautiful in her hospital-issue gray cotton pants and ribbed tank-top. She floated over to sit on John’s bed and folded her long legs beneath her, facing him. With a knowing smile, Michelle winked at John and closed the door on her way out.
“Are you okay?” John asked immediately. “They wouldn’t let me in to see you.”
“Yes. I’m okay.” Cameron studied him with her innocent dark eyes. “Did you find out anything?”
John filled her in on the bogus Connors’ back story Sherman had fed to him, ending with, “But he has this tape of me, and I…It seemed like I believed what I was telling him. That I didn’t think Skynet was real.”
“Skynet is real,” Cameron tabled. “I couldn’t be here if Skynet wasn’t real.”
“Neither could I.”
The words popped out before John really thought about them; he almost wished he could take them back. Some secrets you don’t tell, his mother had ordered him once, when he’d asked why he couldn’t tell anyone the truth about his father. If Skynet knew who John Connor’s father was, Kyle Reese would become a target, too. That was why Sarah had insisted John not tell Derek what had really happened to Kyle, although Derek had figured it out on his own. Not even Cameron knew about Kyle.
Cameron was watching him closely, waiting for him to explain. John took a deep breath. At the moment, Cameron was his only ally; keeping secrets from her felt wrong.
“My father came back from the future,” he told her. “His name was Kyle Reese. I sent him back to protect my mother, and they fell in love. They only had a couple of days together, but it was enough. And I’ve been thinking, for a while now really, before all of this,” he gestured vaguely at the walls of the mental hospital, “that what we’ve been trying to do, changing the future, preventing Judgment Day, all of that, it can’t work. Because if it did, if Skynet never got built, then Kyle Reese would never travel back through time, and I would never be born to stop it.”
“A paradox,” Cameron noted. As always, she appeared entirely unmoved by what was to John an earth-shattering revelation. She twisted her hair up into a ponytail, then realized she didn’t have anything to hold it in place and let it tumble back around her shoulders – a rather un-Cameron-like move, John reflected.
Stop it, he ordered himself. Stop waiting for her to do something that proves she’s not a machine. You’re not crazy. Skynet is real.
“If we can’t stop Skynet, why do you think they’ve trapped you in this place?” Cameron wondered aloud.
“To stop me from leading the resistance in the future?” John guessed. “Isn’t that always what it’s about?”
“Yes. That’s always what it’s about.”
Someone tapped on the door, and Michelle peeked in at them. “Sorry, kids, almost lights-out. Five more minutes, and then say good night, okay?”
“Okay,” John and Cameron chorused together.
“What happened to you?” John asked, mainly out of curiosity. “They said you fought back when they tried to take off your restraints.”
“One of the orderlies is a T-triple-eight.”
John nearly choked. “I – what?” His heart rate escalated wildly; cold sweat broke out on his forehead. “We have to get out of here, right now.”
“It’s okay,” Cameron hurried to say. “I disabled him and stuffed his body down the garbage chute. There’s an incinerator in the basement, for hazardous waste. He’ll be destroyed.”
She reached out, cupping John’s face in her hand, another un-Cameron-like gesture. John nearly recoiled out of sheer astonishment. Her dark eyes bored into his. “I’ll protect you, John,” she promised. “You can trust me.”
Her fingers lingered on his cheek. John was acutely aware of how close they were sitting on the small cot; he could see the flecks of gold around her irises. He swallowed hard. “I trust you,” he murmured.
“Trust yourself, too.” Cameron was watching his mouth in a way John found terribly distracting, yet he tried to focus on her words, sensing their import. “This place can screw with your head. Don’t forget who you are.”
He managed to say, “I’m John Connor.”
“Yes. You’re John Connor.” Cameron smiled at him, one of her soft half-smiles that undid John inside, that left him lying awake at night, thinking of her.
The air between them crackled. John had wanted to kiss her before, though never quite like this – never so much that he actually allowed his mouth to drift toward hers, his pulse thundering in his veins, his stomach twisting into knots…
“Time’s up,” Michelle sang from the hallway. “Come on, Cameron. Bedtime.”
Cameron hesitated. Reluctantly, John leaned back. “Go on,” he said, licking his dry lips. “We’ve got to follow the rules until we figure out what’s going on here, right?”
“Right.” Cameron walked to the doorway, pausing on the threshold to wink at him over her shoulder. “Sweet dreams,” she said.