“What is insanity, anyway? Is it when you scream and everyone else whispers, or is it when you fight for what’s right, even when everyone else thinks you’re wrong?” – Unknown
John said very little on the ride back to Beverly Hills. Sarah sat beside him in the back of the black sedan, studying his profile. Derek drove in silence, eyes on the road, jaw clenched in a tight, worried line.
“Whose blood is that?” had been his uncle’s first question, when John had stepped out of the boarded-up gas station into the sultry afternoon heat.
“Riley’s,” John had answered flatly.
“Riley Dixon’s?” Sarah had intervened, panic driving her voice up an octave. “Where is she?”
“In a warehouse about ten miles east of here.”
“How bad is she hurt?”
Derek had eyed John’s blood-soaked clothes. “She’s dead,” his uncle had guessed, and John, tears stinging his eyes, had nodded. Sarah had started to say something else, but Derek had motioned for her to get in the car. “If she’s dead there’s nothing more we can do for her, Sarah. Let’s get John home and we can figure this out together.”
A sprawling white mansion came into view. John almost asked where they were going when Derek turned into the drive; then he remembered: In Sideways Universe, his mother was rich. His uncle, too. The Reese boys, heirs of an East Coast steel fortune, Dr. Sherman had told him.
Upstairs, John stood under the hot spray for nearly thirty minutes, watching the water swirl around the drain. The cut on the back of his head stung when he massaged shampoo into his hair; he remembered Riley shoving him against the doorframe, the anger and hurt in her eyes. Tears mixed in with the water on his cheeks.
He hated himself because he was crying for Cameron, too, and Cameron had murdered Riley. Stupid, innocent, wrong-place-wrong-time Riley. How could he have gotten her involved in all of this? Not just here in Sideways Universe. Back in the real world, assuming such a place existed, how could he have shown such total disregard for her safety?
Do you care about this girl? Sarah had asked him. Then stay away from her. At the time, he’d thought his mother was being cruel, determined to keep him a child in need of her protection. Now he understood. Sarah had buried Kyle Reese, the love of her life, because of the machines. She had given up every dream she’d ever had for herself to save her son from Skynet. She knew what loving John Connor meant.
It meant losing everything.
John stepped out of the shower. Without warning, the world flashed – The Indian doctor was leaning over him, shining a light in his eyes again, saying, “His EEG is perfectly normal, Mrs. Baum. Your son is not in a coma. I’ve seen it before, in patients who suffer some sort of intense shock. His mind is resetting itself. The only thing to do is wait this out.” – and then he was back in the opulent bathroom, clutching a bath towel fluffier than most feather pillows, dripping water all over the marble-tiled floor.
He dressed in his room, which was the size of some people’s apartments, thinking about what the doctor had said. His mind is resetting itself. Rebooting. Like he could do with Cameron, if he could disable her long enough to pry the chip out of her head again.
He caught a glimpse of himself in the full-length mirror hanging inside his closet door. He had a tell-tale circular bruise above his collarbone, another over his right hip, where Cameron’s soft lips had sucked gently on his skin. John shut his eyes and, for a brief second, let himself remember the previous night, when Cameron had stretched herself out cat-like across him, fairly purring in his ear, nibbling on his earlobe as she’d drawn him, moaning, from sleep.
“Don’t you ever get tired?” he’d whispered, already aching for her.
“Not of you,” she’d whispered back.
John pulled himself out of the memory as his heart started to flip-flop. His blue-green eyes stared back at him in the mirror. I will save her, he vowed. I love her. Weirdly, he was okay with that now, as though loving a machine was no big deal. Maybe going crazy had its benefits – like getting one’s priorities straight.
Priority One: Don’t get killed.
Priority Two: Save the girl.
Priority Three: Become the bad-ass super-soldier that could take down Skynet.
Possibly all three of those things involved figuring out whether Sideways Universe was a dream, and if so, figuring out a way back to reality. In the meantime, John had to convince his mother and his uncle that, all evidence to the contrary, he wasn’t crazy.
Sarah and Derek were sitting together on the couch, talking quietly with their heads together, when John came down the stairs, dressed in a pair of artfully ripped blue jeans – the kind that cost one hundred dollars more than the non-distressed pair in the department store – and a blue button-down with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. He had the distinct impression, from the contents of his walk-in closet, that Sideways Universe John Connor was a rich kid with issues about being rich, so he tried to dress poor.
John hated those kinds of rich kids.
“John, don’t get mad,” Sarah started, which wasn’t a good sign, he was sure, “but we called someone.”
“Dr. Sherman?” John guessed.
His uncle shook his head. “No, not Dr. Sherman.”
John’s gaze slid past his uncle to the row of pictures on the mantle. Most were of John and Sarah over the years, doing goofy things like riding the Teacups at Disney World or surfing in Montego Bay; one, however, was of a younger Derek, dressed in desert camouflage fatigues, grinning at the camera with a rifle slung over his shoulder. So Derek is a soldier in this reality, too, John surmised. He felt marginally safer knowing that. At least if it came to a fight, Derek would have some clue what to do.
He suspected Sideways Universe Sarah would hide under the bed.
“Okay, then who’d you call?” John pressed, praying they wouldn’t say Charlie and Michelle. He couldn’t face the Dixons right now. He couldn’t stand telling them their daughter’s corpse was in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in the city – but they couldn’t go get her, because a Terminator might be watching for them to do just that.
John wouldn’t have been more surprised if his mother had said she’d phoned the Tooth Fairy. “I – why – FBI Agent James Ellison?” John stammered. “Why would you call him?” Color flooded his cheeks. “I didn’t kill Riley, goddammit! You didn’t need to call the FBI on me!”
“John, calm down.” Derek barked out the order in his best drill sergeant voice. His uncle pointed to a chair beside the couch; huffily, John dropped into it, folding his arms across his chest. “We know you wouldn’t kill anybody.”
At least that was something.
“Last night we get a call from Pescadero telling us this girl, Cameron Phillips, attacked two nurses, an orderly, and a security guard, and you’re missing from your room,” Derek went on. “I called Ellison right away. When you asked us to come pick you up, I called him back, and he said to bring you home and keep you here until he arrived.”
“He’s probably bringing a SWAT team,” John muttered darkly. Coming home had clearly been a mistake. Although maybe a SWAT team would come in handy if Cameron showed up here…No, Cromartie had wiped out a whole contingent of FBI agents. He was just risking getting a bunch of innocent people killed.
Before John could work out how to escape, the doorbell rang.
James Ellison looked exactly the same as John remembered him in the real world: A brawny man with glistening chocolate skin, soulful brown eyes, and a shiny bald head wearing an expensive pin-striped suit. He shook Derek’s head, kissed Sarah on the cheek (like that would ever have happened in the real world), and sat down in the chair beside John. “Good afternoon, John,” the agent began pleasantly. “You look tired. I guess it’s to be expected. Being on the lam is a hard life, or so I’m told.”
Was that supposed to be funny? John glared at him.
Ellison cleared his throat and went on, “I understand you’re having some trouble with your memory. Do you remember me, John?”
I remember that you saved my life in Mexico, John wanted to say. I remember that you’ve been tracking my mother and me for more than a decade, most of which we jumped over. Instead, he said, “I remember you.”
“And where do you remember me from?”
“Where do you remember me from?” John parroted back. Why did the crazy person always have to answer questions?
Ellison grinned, as if he enjoyed having the tables turned on him. “All right, fair enough. I was one of the FBI agents who ran down the man who kidnapped you six years ago – the man you called ‘Uncle Bob.’ But I’ve got a feeling that’s not where you remember me from.”
Lying to those piercing eyes proved impossible. “No,” John confessed. ‘That’s not where I remember you from. But I remember that you saved my life,” he added, “and that you’re a good person.”
“That’s somewhere to start, anyway.” Ellison leaned forward, completely ignoring Sarah and Derek, who were watching John’s every move from the couch. His attention was totally focused on John. “I hope you can trust me, John, because there’s something I need to tell you about your friend Cameron, and I have a feeling it’s going to be hard for you to hear.”
John stiffened. “She’s not crazy. She’s broken. I can fix her.”
“Broken. That’s an interesting choice of words,” Ellison mused. “I’m not sure I would disagree with you.”
He pulled a laptop from his briefcase and placed it on the oak coffee table in front of John. He slid a disk into the CD drive – Phillips, Cameron, John read on the jewel case, and his heart stuttered, recalling the tapes of Dr. Sherman’s therapy sessions in the doctor’s desk at Pescadero.
The computer screen came to life with an image of Cameron, maybe thirteen years old, sitting on Sherman’s couch with her legs drawn up to her chest, twirling a strand of dark hair around her finger. She stared at the camera with hollow eyes.
“Can you tell me your name?” a woman with a lilting Irish accent asked off-camera.
John’s breath caught in his throat. Allison. The girl Cameron had thought she was when her chip had malfunctioned several weeks ago.
“Allison, then. I’m Dr. Weaver. Do you know why you’re here, Allison?” Dr. Weaver asked. Allison/Cameron shook her head. “Your parents are very worried about you.”
“My parents?” Allison/Cameron looked puzzled. “You’ve seen them?”
“Yes. They brought you in here last night. Don’t you remember?”
“I remember…There was a bright light. It hurt to look at.” Tears filled Allison/Cameron’s eyes, spilling down her cheeks. John longed to reach back through time and hold her close. “Everything was on fire. And then there was a lot of darkness, and running, and tunnels, and…Then another light.”
“I see,” Weaver said quietly. “What was the light?”
“The first light was the end of the world,” Allison/Cameron whispered.
“And the second light?”
“It brought me back here.”
“I-I don’t know. The man, he said I would find out once I got here.”
Allison/Cameron nodded, wide-eyed. “The man from the future.”
John rocked back in his chair, stunned. The screen went dark. He looked from his mother’s face to his uncle’s to Ellison’s, wondering how they could possibly deny the truth of it now: A human girl named Allison – and he knew, without a doubt, that the girl in that video had not been a machine – had shown up at Pescadero three years ago, according to the date-stamp on the tape, claiming to have been sent back from the future. Surely here was proof that John wasn’t nuts.
But what had happened to Allison? Had Cameron killed her? Why was Cameron a copy of a girl named Allison Young in the first place?
“You see?” John challenged them all. “I’m not crazy. It really happens. Judgment Day, Skynet, the war against the machines, all of it.”
“John,” Sarah said softly, “after we visited you at the hospital the other day, I had Agent Ellison do some checking. Cameron Phillips went missing from Palmdale three years after you disappeared walking home from school. She was held hostage for two months, and when the police found her, she believed a robot from the future had been holding her hostage, torturing her.”
John stared at his mother. “You’re saying Uncle Bob kidnapped her, too?”
Ellison broke in. “No, Cameron’s captor was a woman. We’re not sure why, or how the cases might be related, but she fed that poor little girl a story very similar to the one you were told. Only she convinced Cameron that her name was Allison Young, and that she had been sent back from the future to complete a very important mission, and that the woman was protecting her so Skynet wouldn’t find her. We assume, of course,” the agent concluded, “that your ‘Uncle Bob’ and this woman who took Cameron were working together. The cases never came up in connection together before, but we’re going back through them now, looking for the missing piece.”
“Wait a minute.” John jumped to his feet. “This doesn’t make sense. Dr. Sherman treated us both. How could he not have seen the connection?”
“Cameron only became Dr. Sherman’s patient a few days ago,” Ellison explained. “Before that she was being treated by another psychiatrist at the hospital, Dr. Catherine Weaver. Chances are, Sherman just hadn’t had time to examine her file closely.”
Derek said, “The point is, John, the girl is dangerous. She’s been institutionalized pretty steadily ever since her kidnapping. She’s violent. Deluded. And, judging from that blood you were covered in when we picked you up, I’m betting she’s homicidal.”
John doesn’t want you, Cameron had said, right before she’d pulled the trigger. He wants me. Could they be right? Had Cameron killed Riley in a fit of jealous rage and then turned on John, believing he’d betrayed her somehow? Had he come to believe she was a Terminator because she believed that, based on whatever insane story her kidnapper had told her?
It was all so absurd and coincidental and maddening – and it didn’t change the fact that if Ellison, Sarah, and Derek were wrong, Terminator Cameron was more than likely on her way there right then to kill them.
John concentrated very hard on affecting his most mature, future-leader-of-mankind, I-can-handle-this-shit expression. “I’m willing to admit that I have absolutely no idea whether any of this is real or if it’s all in my head,” he declared. “Here’s what I do know. Cameron shot Riley, and then she tried to kill me.” Sarah cried out in horror; Derek put an arm around her shoulders. “Whether she’s a homicidal maniac or a Terminator, I’m pretty sure Cameron is coming here next. We’re all in danger. We need to leave, now.”
“I’m going to call this in,” Ellison said, standing. “But John may have a point. It would be prudent to move you out of the house until we know what this girl is capable – ”
Ellison never got to finish that statement, because with a crack, the living room window shattered. The agent staggered forward, clutching his chest, his mouth rounding into a surprised o as a rivulet of blood ran down his forehead, right between his eyes.
A second later, he collapsed onto the coffee table, crunching his laptop beneath him.
Sarah screamed. Derek knocked her to the ground, flattening his body over hers, and John hit the dirt, too, as bullets ricocheted around the living room, shredding the expensive furniture, shattering a set of spun-glass plates hanging on the far wall.
Apparently, Cameron had traded up from the .9 millimeter to an automatic weapon.
When the gunfire finally stopped, Derek shouted to John, “Upstairs! Go!”
“No,” John said stubbornly. “She’s after me. I’ll lead her away – ”
“There’s a gun, under my bed,” Derek interrupted. “Get it. Now.”
John hesitated. Sarah, still pinned beneath Derek, snarled, “John Connor, listen to your uncle. Go!”
She sounded so much like the Sarah he remembered that John sprinted up the stairs.
He ducked into three rooms on the second floor before happening onto Derek’s – the mansion was ridiculously spacious for three people, honestly – and half-crawled, half-slid across the floor to retrieve the Sig Sauer from under the four-poster bed. It was loaded, with one in the chamber, and John snatched extra ammunition out of the bedside table. He couldn’t help noticing that Derek had a picture of his mother – young, pretty, smiling – in an old frame there. The picture that, in the real world, John had given Kyle Reese so he would recognize Sarah when he traveled back in time to rescue her.
Shouts sounded down below. John eased along the staircase, peering over the banister as Cameron stalked into the living room, an Uzi slung over her shoulder. She aimed her .9 millimeter at Derek’s head where he crouched in front of Sarah. “Where is John?” Cameron demanded of them.
“Fuck you,” Derek responded defiantly.
Cameron shot him. Point blank, in the head.
Blood and brains spattered Sarah’s cheeks, and she shrieked, an awful, keening noise that told John exactly how deeply his mother loved Derek Reese in Sideways Universe. His own heart skidded to a stop, then started up again, slowly and painfully, his chest constricting with grief. Derek was gone. Just like that.
Suddenly, John wanted very, very much to wake up.
But the dream – if that’s what it was – continued, and the only thing John could focus on at the moment was protecting Sarah. His mother was on her knees in front of Cameron, staring numbly at the muzzle of the gun. “Call to him,” Cameron commanded. “Call to John.”
Something familiar twisted across Sarah’s features. John recognized it: the unbendable steel that was Sarah Connor’s spirit rising to the surface.
“Go to hell,” she bit out.
Cameron’s finger moved on the trigger, and John yelled, “Leave her alone,” from the staircase – then ducked as a hail of bullets whizzed over his head. He was pinned down, bullets slicing the air around him; he couldn’t even squeeze off a shot, and sooner or later, one of Cameron’s bullets was going to find its purchase.
A crazy idea occurred to John. Well, he thought, I‘m already crazy, right? Might as well give it a go…
The bullets stopped. “I’m not Allison,” Cameron said, though she sounded rather uncertain of that. “Allison is dead. I killed her.”
John shuddered. He had a bad, bad feeling that was true. “Leave my mother alone. You didn’t come here for her.”
“Come out and I won’t hurt her,” Cameron called back.
John’s pulse was fluttering wildly in his veins. Blood rushed in his ears. He knew what he had to do – she had left him no choice – and he wanted to be cold about it, to feel nothing, to believe that the girl he’d made love with was already dead, but he couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. He didn’t want to live in a world without Cameron. His whole crazy, fucked-up life, in Sideways Universe and in the real world, was totally worth it, just because he’d gotten the chance to know Cameron.
He could give up, John realized. He could lay down his gun, walk down the stairs, and allow her to put a bullet in his brain. Why bother rebooting the system when he could simply shut it down, permanently?
John’s own words came back to him, words he’d barely understood at the time, though he’d certainly meant them: “Some people never give up. Some people always fight.”
Priority One: Don’t get killed.
Priority Two: Save the girl.
If Cameron was human, he could shoot her in the shoulder or the leg, disable her. But if he went for the non-fatal wound and she wasn’t human, he would probably never get off a second shot. Could he take that chance?
John closed his eyes, realizing he had a choice to make here. Priority one, he told himself. He couldn’t do anything to help Cameron if he was dead.
I love you, John, and you love me.
“I do,” John whispered. “I do love you.” And if there was any way to reboot the system, to reset his brain, any way to make Sideways Universe a place his mind could simply not continue in, then this had to be it: Killing Cameron.
Please let me wake up.
John stood up and squeezed the trigger.