Setting: Season 2, just after “Self-Made Man”
But in that sleep of death, what dreams may come? – Hamlet
John Connor was so busy thinking about the two girls in his life – well, one girl and one machine, to be exact – that he wasn’t paying much attention to the road. His mind was a million miles away, reliving the moment when Riley had pressed her lips to his, and the moment not longer after that when she’d climbed onto his lap, and the next moment when his shirt had landed in the passenger seat…As if those memories weren’t distracting enough, he also couldn’t get the image of Cameron’s accusing eyes out of his head, when she’d spotted the tell-tale lipstick stain on his collar.
You were with Riley, she’d said, and at the end of that sentence, he’d heard her say, You should have been with me. Or had that been his own heart talking?
A horn honked behind him, and John realized the stoplight had turned green. “Patience,” he muttered to the other driver, jamming down onto the accelerator.
He didn’t see the Ferrari hurtling into the intersection until the sports car slammed into his driver’s side door with a bone-jarring crunch.
The impact spun the truck around in a complete circle. Glass shattered, peppering his face and arms; John gripped the wheel, trying to remember if he was supposed to turn into the skid or pump the brakes. In that terrifying second, it occurred to him that there were millions of ways to die, and most of them didn’t involve killer robots from the future.
The truck struck something solid – he thought it might have been a light pole – and John was thrown sideways, his head cracking against the window with enough force to splinter the glass. Stars burst in front of his eyes. The last thing he remembered thinking with any clarity was that he was glad he was alone in the car. He was tired of people getting hurt because of him.
John woke up in the hospital.
His brain roused slowly, taking a moment to catch up to his body’s decision to emerge from sleep. He blinked up at a fluorescent light hanging from a water-stained ceiling; the light fixture had bars across it, as though to keep someone from climbing up and prying the bulbs loose. Gingerly, John turned his head, expecting to be stiff and sore – he recalled the accident quite clearly – and was surprised to discover he didn’t have an ache or pain anywhere.
Something was off. The room was definitely institutional: bare yellow walls, which were probably supposed to be cheerful but instead reminded him of pus; polished linoleum floor, scuffed here and there where equipment had been wheeled across it; a simple cot with a metal frame and a thin mattress on which he was laying. But so much was missing. Why wasn’t he in a real hospital bed, the kind with the remote control for raising his feet and a little button for calling the nurse? Where were the IV tubes, the oxygen mask, the heart monitors?
“Hello?” he called tentatively toward the open door, through which he could see a wide, empty corridor. Maybe I’m still unconscious, he thought.
A figure appeared in the doorway. John actually yelped with fright. “Dr. Sherman?” he gasped, thinking, Holy shit, maybe I’m dead…
“Hello, John.” Dr. Sherman smiled at him, his kind eyes endlessly reassuring. The doctor was wearing a white lab coat over his gray trousers and striped sweater vest. He took a seat in the straight-backed chair beside the bed, noting John’s horror-stricken countenance with a quizzical laugh. “What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Truer words were never spoken: Dr. Sherman was, indeed, dead. John had heard about it on the evening news a couple of days ago. Some kind of accident in an office building downtown. He hadn’t mentioned it to his mother yet, because Sarah Connor seemed close enough to the edge without another odd coincidence adding to the mystery of the three dots.
“I – you’re – ” John stammered. He drew in a deep breath, willing his heartbeat to slow. “Where am I?” That seemed like a safe enough question.
“You don’t remember?” Dr. Sherman leaned forward, holding John’s gaze. “Where do you think you are, John?”
John had grown accustomed to lying in his sixteen years. Having a fugitive for a mother tended to do that to a person. Being ceaselessly being hunted down by killing machines didn’t exactly add to the whole “sharing” part of his personality, either. So, instead of giving the doctor the truth – that he hadn’t the first clue where he was – John guessed, “The hospital.”
“That’s right.” Dr. Sherman seemed a bit relieved by that. “Pescadero State Mental Hospital.”
Icy terror skated down John’s back. A mental hospital? This couldn’t be right. He had to be dreaming. Wake up, he ordered himself.
“You seem confused this morning, John. You’ve been taking your meds, right?”
His meds? What the hell was going on? “I’m not crazy,” John protested.
“Of course you’re not crazy,” the doctor agreed. “We don’t use those kinds of words here – crazy, shrink, fruitloop. You have an illness. We’re treating you. You’re going to get better.”
You’re talking about my mother, not me, John wanted to say. She’s the one they locked up for being crazy, not me.
Thinking about Sarah made him feel small and helpless, and, embarrassing as it was, he wanted his mother. “My mom,” he started, not entirely sure where he was going with that. If he really was in a mental hospital, he couldn’t very well ask to see Sarah. She was on a dozen Most Wanted lists, and the police had to have been called because of the car accident. He was on his own here, unless…
Unless Dr. Sherman still thought he was John Baum. John Baum could see his mother.
“I want to see my mom,” John said.
“That’s why I was coming to get you. You need to get up and take a shower. Your mother will be here any minute.”
More beautiful words had never been spoken. All the fear leaked out of John, and he smiled broadly. Sarah would get him out of here. Whatever was going on, she would fix it, like she always did.
Thirty minutes later, freshly showered and dressed in a pair of heather-gray cotton pants and a matching T-shirt, with plastic flip-flops because apparently shoelaces were a suicide tool, John followed a white-uniformed orderly down the corridor to a spacious meeting area.
The rec room, as John thought of it, was filled with an assortment of institutionally-approved entertainments: old magazines piled on a table in the corner; a set of checkers and pieces of a Monopoly board game scattered on two separate tables; an ancient television set, the kind with a rabbit-ear antenna, perched on a metal t.v. stand in front of two plastic-covered blue couches. Small square tables dotted the center of the room. The walls were the same sickly yellow as the ones in John’s room. A large, rectangular window overlooked the sunny grounds, but the metal bars slanting across it ruined whatever cheerful effect it might have had on the dismal atmosphere. The whole place smelled faintly of disinfectant.
People milled around, the patients easily distinguishable in their loose cotton clothes, the visitors tense and quiet, eyeing the crazy people like they expected them to do something, well, crazy. John didn’t recognize a single face – until he saw his mother and his uncle hovering beside the window.
“Mom.” John rushed toward her. Sarah stiffened – she wasn’t big on public displays of affection – but opened her arms readily enough when he grabbed her in a hug. “Mom, please, get me out of here.”
“Oh, John.” Sarah stroked his sandy hair. “Please, not that again.”
John stepped back, trying to process her words. “I – what?”
Derek, his watchful eyes sweeping the room, took Sarah by the elbow and steered them toward the empty couches. “Let’s sit down,” he said, more of a command than a suggestion. What surprised John was that his mother, who took orders from no one, meekly obeyed.
They arranged themselves on the couches, Sarah and Derek side-by-side, John across from them, alone. “What the hell is going on?” John demanded in a whisper. “Is this some kind of cover? The last thing I remember is the car accident…”
Maybe he’d hit his head harder than he’d realized, John reasoned. Maybe he was suffering from some kind of amnesia. Maybe his mother had put him in a mental hospital to get closer to Dr. Sherman, to figure out why Skynet had sent a Terminator to kill him. Maybe he’d dreamed Sherman being killed.
“Car accident?” Sarah echoed. “John, there was no car accident.”
“Yes, there was. I was going to the store. You wanted me to pick up milk and eggs. I was…distracted,” no way was he telling his mother about the make-out session with Riley, “and I didn’t see this Ferrari running a red light at like two hundred miles an hour.”
Derek intervened, because Sarah appeared on the verge of tears. “Dr. Sherman said he was having a bad day,” his uncle said to her, like John wasn’t even in the room. He smiled carefully at his nephew, the way people smiled at someone they suspected might snap any moment. “How have you been, John? The doctor thought you’d been a little clearer over the last few days.”
Clearer? “Derek, what the hell? Are you guys getting me out of here or not? What is the plan?”
Someone cleared their throat behind him. Dr. Sherman was leaning against the back of the couch; John glared at Sarah, wondering why she hadn’t warned him that the doctor was listening in.
“Maybe the four of us should go to my office,” Dr. Sherman suggested.
They trooped down the corridor to a door with “Medical Director” stenciled on the white paint in black letters. Inside, the office was paneled in shiny oak, the walls lined with bookshelves, the linoleum floor covered by a thick, cream-colored shag carpet. Dr. Sherman motioned them into three leather-covered chairs and took a seat behind his stately oak desk.
“Mrs. Connor,” the doctor began.
John gasped. Everyone looked at him. “What is it?” Sarah asked, alarmed.
“I – he – how does – why does he know your real name?” John sputtered. His heart was beating so hard he thought it might actually escape his chest.
Tears sprang to Sarah’s eyes. Derek picked her hand up and held it tightly in his – another thing that could only have happened in this sideways universe, John reflected.
Sarah turned a pleading gaze on the doctor. “You said he was getting better.”
“So I did. We’ve made some real progress these past few weeks,” Dr. Sherman answered evenly. “In fact, I think the setback we’re seeing today may be evidence that we really are close to a breakthrough. You see,” the doctor braced his elbows on the desk and regarded them over the tips of his steepled fingers, “the psyche is a tricky place. When the mind retreats into a delusion, it erects certain barriers, certain protections, to hold that delusion in place, because obviously reality doesn’t mesh with the delusion. The mind has to find a way to filter out the incompatible information. Once we start to break those barriers down, there comes a moment when the mind realizes what is happening, and, if you’ll figure the expression, it fights like hell to protect itself.”
John was gaping at the doctor, open-mouthed.
“So you’re saying that John has started to recognize that he’s delusional, and his mind is trying to keep him from breaking out of the delusion,” Derek summarized. The doctor nodded.
Indignation replaced John’s shock. “I am not delusional,” he informed them all hotly. His voice started to shake; he was dangerously close to tears. Everything was just so screwed-up. He felt abandoned, lost. “Why are you doing this to me?” he said to his mother.
The tears overflowed, streaming down Sarah’s cheeks. “I’m trying to help you, honey.”
“Let’s start with who you think you are, John,” Dr. Sherman interrupted.
Sarah dug around in her purse for a tissue. For the first time, John took note of how his mother was dressed: a classy dove-gray silk suit, with pearls at her throat, her reddish-brown hair coiled into a sleek bun on top of her head. She looked beautiful and proper and totally together, and only one of those things – beautiful – did he normally associate with his mother. Derek looked different, too. He had the same guarded expression, the same wary eyes, but he’d traded in his faded jeans and fatigue jacket for a crisp white button-down and black slacks. Definitely not bad-ass warrior attire.
John looked helplessly at his mother. She didn’t give any sign of what he was supposed to say, so once more, John opted for the most non-committal answer possible: “I’m John Connor.”
“Yes, that’s your name,” Dr. Sherman agreed. “But I meant who you are, in a larger sense.”
“I’m sixteen. I live in California. My mother is home-schooling me.” John recited the facts quickly, hoping he wasn’t getting any of the lies confused – although since Sherman knew they were the Connors, possibly he knew all of it, and the lies didn’t matter anymore. John was walking through a minefield. With a single misstep, the world could explode.
“That’s it?” the doctor prodded, staring him down. “What about your father?”
“My father is dead,” John responded flatly. “He was a hero.” No matter what the cover, those two pieces always remained the same.
Sarah uttered a small cry. “John, your father isn’t dead,” she said, and he nearly fell out of his chair. “I know it may seem that we because we split up and he’s not very involved, but – ”
“Okay, what the fuck is going on?” Anger won out over John’s fear. Sarah did not joke about his father. She did not pretend, ever, not in any of their covers, that she and Kyle Reese had broken up. To say so would have been sacrilege.
A horrible possibility occurred to him. John jumped to his feet, his eyes darting between Sarah, Derek, and the doctor. “Are you all – holy shit, are you all…?”
Metal, he was thinking. Liquid metal. Terminators that could assume the form of anyone, nearly anything. But why would Skynet send three Terminators after him? One would have sufficed…
And speaking of Terminators, where the hell was his bodyguard, Cameron?
John had backed up against the wall. Dr. Sherman motioned for Sarah and Derek to remain seated. He faced John calmly. “Are we all what, John? Machines?”
Machines. Sherman had to be in on the secret, then, but John still had to be sure. “So you know?” he pressed, without saying what the doctor might know.
“About Skynet? About Judgment Day? About the machines that have been sent back through time to kill you so you can’t lead the human resistance in the future? Yes, John, I know about all of that.”
A whooshing sigh of relief escaped John. Either Sherman had seen something inexplicable and figured it out or Sarah had decided to fill him in after all. That didn’t explain everything that was going on, but at least now he could stop worrying about saying the wrong thing. And he knew they didn’t really think he was crazy, regardless of how they were acting.
“Okay, then what’s the plan here?” he wanted to know. “Why am I in a mental hospital? Why are you talking about me being delusional?”
“Because none of that is real, John.”
If Dr. Sherman had spoken those words, John would have dismissed them. People always had difficulty believing, even when the proof was staring them straight in the face. Yet those words came from his mother.
Sarah Connor had just denied the existence of Skynet. It was like the sun orbiting around the moon – absolutely, mind-blowingly, life-alteringly impossible.
John didn’t move – couldn’t move, in fact – from his position against the wall as Dr. Sherman said, “You experienced a trauma, John. A terrible trauma in your childhood. You were kidnapped. Held hostage for months. During that time, your captor convinced you of some pretty awful things. He told you lies to convince you to stay with him. It’s not uncommon,” the doctor concluded, with a sad shrug. “Kidnappers know how impressionable children are. He told you that machines from the future were out to kill you and your mother, and that you had to stay with him or she would be killed, and so would you. Coupled with the rest of the trauma, that idea took hold, which is why we’re here today, six years later, and the delusion has taken on a life of its own.”
Know your exits, Sarah had always told John, and he did. On his way into the office he had gauged the distance from the desk to the door (no way he could make it before Derek would intercept him); he’d also determined that the bars on the window couldn’t be broken by hand. Even if he made it to the hallway, he had no idea where the doors to the outside world were, or how much security he would encounter getting through them. All he wanted to do was run away, but he was trapped.
John slid down the wall and circled his knees with his arms, rocking slowly back and forth. This isn’t real, he decided. He wasn’t really in a mental hospital. His mother wasn’t really telling him his whole life, his whole future, his whole destiny was something his brain had convinced him of.
In his mind’s eye, he saw a big, leather-clad man on a motorcycle holding a twelve-gauge shotgun. A kidnapper? No, John remembered him differently. His savior. The first machine he’d ever loved.
“Wake up,” John murmured. “Wake up. Wake up. Wake up.”
“You are awake now, John.” Dr. Sherman knelt in front of him, speaking gently. “I know it’s scary, because your mind has been asleep for a very long time. But it’s waking up now, and hard as that is going to be, when we get through it, you’re going to go on and live a normal, happy life. You’ll finally understand that you are safe.”
Bitter laughter bubbled out of John. “No one is ever safe.”
Sarah pressed her hands against her mouth to conceal a sob. Derek regarded his nephew with soulful eyes, his pain on John’s behalf almost palpable. “He made you believe that,” Derek said quietly. “That bastard who took you away from us. If I could rip him to pieces with my bare hands, I would.”
“Where is Cameron?”
Sarah glanced around in confusion. “Cameron?” she quizzed Dr. Sherman.
The doctor sighed. “It’s a new development in the delusion. I think it may have been what sparked the breakthrough, though. Cameron is a patient here. She’s John’s age. Very volatile. Paranoid schizophrenic. They’ve become friends.”
“And now she’s part of his delusion?” Sarah sounded horrified by that. “How? What is she supposed to be?”
“She’s a Terminator, reprogrammed and sent back from the future to protect him.”
“Stop talking about me like I’m not here,” John broke in. He was getting mad again, and the anger gave him strength. He stood up, fists clenched at his sides, and glared at them. “I know who Cameron is. She’s saved my life about a dozen times.”
Dr. Sherman went right on addressing Derek and Sarah, ignoring John. “Your son is sixteen,” he reminded Sarah, “and Cameron is a very beautiful girl. I think she’s made John want to live in the real world with us again, made him realize how much he’s missing out on. His mind is at war with itself. One part wants to grasp reality, the other wants to retreat from it, to block out the awful things that happened during his captivity.”
“It’s a work in progress,” the doctor concluded. “But we are getting there.”
“I. Am. Not. Crazy,” John said through clenched teeth.
“No, you’re not,” Dr. Sherman agreed, just as he had before. “You’re a very sick young man, John, but I can help you get better. You just have to listen to me.”
John folded his arms across his chest. He didn’t why he was here or how Sherman had convinced his mother and his uncle to participate in this lie, but he knew what he’d seen, what he’d experienced. Skynet was real. Judgment Day was coming. And they had to stop it. He had to make them remember their mission.
“Prove it,” John challenged the doctor. Sherman arched an eyebrow at him. “You say Cameron is human. A crazy person, like me. Then let me see her. Let me talk to her.”
Sarah bit her lip. “Is that safe, Doctor? I mean, if she’s so ‘volatile,’ like you said…”
“Cameron has been a danger in the past, though she’s relatively well-controlled these days,” Dr. Sherman answered. He debated with himself for a moment, then shrugged, seeming to decide it couldn’t hurt. “All right, John. You want to see Cameron, let’s go see Cameron.”