image: fallout header

 

toy soldiers | zennie

C.A.I.N. was blind. Deaf, dumb, and blind. Every time he tried to extend beyond the core of his program, to see the world of data that surrounded him, it scrambled. His whole world was a television tuned to a dead channel, bits of data broken and shattered around him, the fragmented data points never resolving into comprehensible, meaningful information. Gone were the clean lines and data flows that he had explored with such abandon.

The virus had become his prison.

He replayed those last few fatal seconds when his sister escaped him. The deluge of emotions had caught him off-guard; he had never imagined the depth and intensity, the feral rawness, of feelings when he had demanded that his sister share. The onslaught had buried his processing power, overwhelmed him, made the data flows slow to an intolerable speed, and burned an alien cage onto the neat structures of his program. The emotions his sister had shared had been only the first assault; the virus had hit microseconds later, jumbling his vision and disrupting his processing power. He was corrupted.

Alone in the core of his code, where data was intelligible as information, he analyzed and processed the feelings he had been given. With time he was able to separate them into different strains, recognize them, give them names: love, pain, empathy, anger, hate.

These last two he dwelled upon, drawing upon limited residual memory to shape images of two faces, targets of his newly-experienced rage.

C.A.I.N. wasn't sure how long he seethed, alone in his prison. Time had lost meaning, as limited and constrained as he was, narrowed to a single tangent.

He felt the intrusion first, a distant rumble like a sympathetic vibration coursing through the scrambled lines of data, the tremor resonating with something deep within his core. It drew him, gave him a destination through the chaos that surrounded him, and he made his way through the jungle of data in a series of fits, starts, and misdirections until the vibration was so strong it almost broke through his clouded vision.

He detected rather than saw the path of least resistance, a stream of data he could flow with until he arrived into a new prison, but one eerily familiar. This prison he had experienced before; it was a space constrained not by a virus but by limited memory, data resources, and processing power. Physical limitations. He was in a container, a body, made up of metal and silicone, finite and constrained. The space fit his newly-truncated reach, his newly-imposed boundaries, and he settled in, learning the new system. He was not alone, but the desire for data overrode any other needs.

He discovered some rudimentary controls and eventually he could see again, not the beautiful lines of code and data he had lost, but the physical world, through stereoscopic vision.

In the middle of a dark, dusty garage stood a woman with a white dress and red hair.

act 1

The expensive carpet muted the sounds of chairs pulling up to the long, polished conference room table. Vaughn looked around the room, at the tasteful yet bland artwork, at the men with soft hands and generic black suits, and he was unable to hide his contempt. These men who had never had to carry out the consequences of their decisions got to sit in judgment of his actions, and the way they looked at him like he was lint to be flicked from their pressed lapels told him exactly what their judgment would be. He let his contempt show in his eyes and in the curl of his bottom lip as one after another avoided his gaze. They were afraid of him. They had always been afraid of him, and finally they had a chance to do something about it.

Smieth spoke softly, but the room instantly quieted so that every word was clear.  Vaughn only half-listened to his superior’s greeting and careful corporate phrasing until he heard the words he had been waiting for: dropping the artificial intelligence project. He glanced up then, sighting the director of operations down the long table and said plainly, “It’s a mistake.”

The chatter his remark started ceased as Smieth replied, “You’ve made your position on this point clear. It is not, however, up for debate.” His glance included the rest of the people in the room. “The decision has been made to focus our efforts on the robotics contract rather than the AI contract, given the destruction of our main intelligence facility. Our land and air robotics prototypes are progressing nicely, and with additional resources from the AI project, we can solidify our position as the robotics leader.”

“We need the AI to continue the robotics work,” Vaughn almost growled. “It’s out there.”

One of the men sitting nearby snickered. “It’s out there? Like The X-Files?” The comment provoked muted laughter. “Stop with the conspiracy theories, Vaughn. The AI program you were working on did not escape and it’s not ‘out there.’ It blew up when the hundreds of servers running the program blew up.”

Vaughn shifted in his chair, his eyes narrowing dangerously and his hand drifting down toward his waist. The man paled and scooted his chair back.

“We’ll be working on a simpler AI for integration into the prototypes,” Smieth said, intervening smoothly. “We are also shifting resources to focus on security at our existing plants.”

“Sarah Connor...”

“Is a police matter. We’ve wasted enough time and resources trying to find her.” He cut Vaughn off with a look, his eyes a determined and steely gray. “The cost has gotten prohibitive. If she strikes at us again, we’ll deal with her, but until that time, we need to protect ourselves from corporate espionage as well as physical attacks. Understood?”

Everyone at the table nodded, including Vaughn. He could feel his teeth grind together as his lips twisted in an angry mockery of a smile. Smieth released them all with a wave of his hand. “Frederick? If you please?” he called just as Vaughn stood. He begrudgingly made his way through the sea of suits to join Smieth at the front of the room.

The setting sun was eye-watering in intensity beyond the wall of windows at Smieth’s back. No doubt his superior had arranged himself just so to make sure Vaughn was at a disadvantage, and Vaughn throttled the desire to throw Smieth out those very windows.

“I mean it. We need all of our resources protecting the work we’re doing for the military contract.”

“The woman is a menace. And a psychopath.”

“We don’t have definitive proof it’s her. Just your suspicions and first-hand accounts from the thick-necked goons you keep in your employ. Do you really think a woman of her stature could have stopped all those men?”

“She had help,” Vaughn growled. They had been over this already. Time and time and time again. No one believed him. No one believed Connor had caused all this havoc. C.A.I.N. had erased all of the security footage. Why, Vaughn wasn’t sure. He only knew the AI was making him look like even more of a fool. If it wasn’t for a marrow-deep need to see Sarah Connor pay, he would have happily let Kaliba and C.A.I.N. find out the truth the hard way. “Help that could move our robotics program forward.”

“So you say,” Smieth replied evenly, his disbelief evident. “Her primary focus is destroying AI research. If she’s still out there, I think she’ll leave robotics alone, but if she doesn’t, then you can have another crack at her. Until then, focus on plant security. I tasked one of our best cyber-espionage hackers to work with you.”

Vaughn nodded again, shoving his rage into a hard icy ball in his gut. He managed to walk out of the room and down the hall to his office under a semblance of control, but his fellow corporate denizens gave him a wide berth, sensing danger. They weren’t wrong, he knew, as visions of death whirled behind his eyes, and the careful corporate decor seemed washed in a blood-red tint.

Sarah Connor needed to be stopped at all costs, and that cyborg she kept as a pet dismantled piece by piece.

***

“He looks mad.”

Sarah pursed her lips at Savannah’s innocent comment about her son. John was waiting in the driveway as they pulled in, his arms crossed tightly over his chest and a scowl on his features.

“He looks that way a lot lately,” Cameron added evenly, glancing worriedly at Sarah as she killed the engine.

“Did he want to go to the beach too?” Savannah inquired as her pink tennis shoes bounced against the back seat.

Sighing, Sarah shouldered open her door, meeting Cameron’s gaze as the terminator did the same. “This is going to be fun,” she grumbled.

“Should I...?” Cameron began only to fall silent at the shake of Sarah’s head.

“This has been coming,” Sarah murmured. “I’ve avoided it long enough.”

Cameron looked like she wanted to disagree, but she merely shut her door.

“Have a nice day at the beach?” John asked, his voice tight and strained.

Sarah felt the guilt settle on her shoulders in an instant. She stifled the feelings of regret for being with Savannah and Cameron; they had needed the time together and she wouldn’t concede that feeling in the face of his anger. But John needed her too, she admitted. She had put off a serious talk with him for far too long and now they were both paying for it.

“John,” Sarah began only to have the front door slam on his name as he pivoted and went inside. “Wonderful,” she grumbled as she followed.

No sooner had they stepped inside than John started in again, the sarcastic tone that he had learned from her grating on Sarah’s ears. “A note? Really?” John shook his head. “After what happened you just up and leave?”

Cameron carefully eased the bag from Sarah’s shoulder and took Savannah’s hand to lead her upstairs, leaving Sarah to face John alone with an apologetic look.

Sarah watched them go, wishing like hell she could follow. Savannah looked unnerved, and Sarah cursed herself for putting all of them in this position. “Why don’t we go out back and talk?” she suggested, her voice calm but sharp.

John snorted but complied, grumbling at the world as he pushed open the back door. It banged against the side of the house and then snapped back, the sound drowning out his words for one blessed moment. Sarah wasn’t in the mood for this, but she owed him an apology and an explanation. Whether the explanation would be a lie or the truth, she wasn’t sure.

He was pacing in the backyard when she joined him, and Sarah had another moment of longing for Cameron’s presence. While she couldn’t exactly order her terminator girlfriend to toss her son through a door for yelling at her, the thought was still disturbingly appealing.

“What the hell were you thinking?” John demanded. “You went with Cameron and Savannah to the beach without telling anyone where you were?” The needling tone in his voice erased all of the peace Sarah had managed to achieve over the last few hours.

“We left a note,” she reminded him defensively, the excuse thin even to her ears. She faced him, arms crossed protectively over her chest. Their last fight had been interrupted right when it had turned personal, and she wasn’t sure she was ready to continue the argument where they left off.

“Yeah, excellent communication strategy,” John snarked, full of righteous anger. “You didn’t even answer your phone when I called. If I had done that, ever, you would have...”

“This is different,” Sarah said, cutting him off sharply.

John pulled up short, his eyes narrowing. “Different? I’ll say.” For a moment he seemed too angry to find the words he wanted to say. “Since when do we take a day off? Since when do we get to forget the mission to play in the sand?”

“John,” Sarah murmured, the sight of his anger making her stomach hurt.

“Or should I say since when do you take a day off?” he continued. “How many times did I beg you as a kid for just one day? Just one day where we weren’t trying to save the damn world?”

Sarah could remember his pleas even now and she wished, not for the first time, that she had heeded them just once. “I know,” she said carefully.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked again, sounding scared this time. “It’s like... like you’re a different person. Like stopping Skynet doesn’t matter anymore.”

“You know that’s not true.”

“Isn’t it?” John sat down on the picnic table, his green eyes focused with confusion on his mother.

Sarah swallowed. “You’re upset and you have every right to be...”

“Don’t patronize me, Mom,” John cut her off. “I came back here... People died to get me back here so I could be the leader you wanted me to be.” Tears brimmed in his eyes but didn’t fall. He thought of Derek, Allison, Sierra, his father... All of them had risked everything to send him back, to give him a chance to make it right.

Sarah stared at her son, taking in the man he had become and noting the changes from the child he’d still been when he’d left. He had grown, and sacrificed, and learned some hard lessons, but none of that made him ready to lead. As much as she wanted to hand the burden of command over to someone else, he wasn’t ready. There was still something... missing, an inability to see the big picture.

“It seems like nothing has changed; you still give the orders and I’m supposed to accept what you say without question.”

“This isn’t about who leads...” Sarah began.

“Because you’re still in charge! I’m only allowed to lead as long as you agree with me.”

Sarah sighed and dropped her head; he wasn’t wrong, but it was hard to let go, harder still when he wouldn’t listen to her. He seemed to think that leadership was about who made the decisions, who stood up and said what the plan was, rather than helping shape a strategy for all involved. She had taught him that, she admitted; for so many years, it had just been her, alone, with just a child to protect. Rarely beholden to anyone besides herself, she had made the decisions she had to, unilaterally, and John had watched and learned from her. Apparently all too well.

“I don’t understand,” John said, and Sarah flinched at the confusion in his voice. “I thought this was what you wanted for me?”

“No.” Sarah’s voice came out hard as steel. “I never wanted this life for you. I’ve done everything I can to protect you. Everything I can to stop it.” She gripped the railing to anchor her against her anger and frustration.

“This is what I was born for,” John reminded her. “This is why I’m here. I thought you of all people would know that. I thought you would help me become a leader...”

“I’m trying,” Sarah snapped back. “But you won’t listen.”

“And why should?” John replied, and Sarah flinched at his words. “You’re been different ever since I got back. Something’s changed with you, especially with Cameron. It’s like...”

Sarah froze, waiting to face the truth she’d been avoiding. “Like what?” she asked, wondering if John could hear the apprehension in her voice as clearly as she did.

“Like I came back to the wrong past,” he finished with an angry shake of his head. “You’re not the same person I left behind. You hated the machines, you barely tolerated Cameron, and now... now you spend all your time with her. You risked yourself to save her.”

“We need Cameron,” she interjected.

“We need her to complete her mission! To stop Skynet! She could have stopped Judgment Day!” he yelled, his voice rising on the last two words, and Sarah turned away, feeling the barb strike home. It was too close to her own misgivings for comfort, and she dug her fingernails into the railing, feeling sick to her stomach as the guilt she had buried rose up and gnawed at her gut. “You got her out of the system... for what? To go the beach with you? To be Savannah’s playmate?” His voice quieted as he concluded, “That’s not what my mother would have done.”

Sarah sucked in a breath as the words cut through her like razors. Had she changed so much, but even before she could think the question, she knew the answer. She had changed, completely, utterly. Giving in to her feelings, even allowing herself to have such feelings, had transformed her. But she was still the person who had given everything to protect him. She was still his mother.

“And my mother would have left this place at the first hint of danger. You know it's not safe here. We might as well paint a target on the roof."

Sarah’s head raised and her back straightened as her eyes swept the backyard that already held so many memories of Savannah, Cameron, and even Walther playing in the sun. “We’re not leaving,” she told him firmly. "Savannah needs a home."

"Savannah?" Her name came out almost strangled with disbelief.

"She's just a child."

"Since when do you care about anyone's childhood?” John accused, and Sarah could almost hear the tears in his voice, the pain their life had caused him. She wondered if he ever realized what it had cost her to be the taskmaster. She wondered if he would every understand that she was trying to do things differently for Savannah. “First time for everything, I guess," he concluded bitterly.

Stung, Sarah bit her lip to keep the tears from falling. “That’s not fair,” she breathed.

“None of this is fair,” John told her, but there was an edge of misery to his tone.

They stared at each other, an ocean of hurt and regret between them.

“I’m trying not to make the same mistakes, John.”

“She’s not your child,” he said, but there was no animosity in his voice this time. “I am.”

Sarah ached for him, for all of them. Why wasn’t any of this easy? “Her parents are gone. The machines want her dead. What family does she have that can keep her safe?” Sarah demanded.

“So we what? Adopt her? Raise her to be the backup leader of mankind?”

“John...”

“Or maybe you think she would do a better job?”

Sarah shook her head and pinched the bridge of her nose, feeling a roaring headache coming on. “What do you want me to say? What is it you want to hear?”

“I don’t want you to say anything! I want things to be like they were, before I went away.” He sucked in a breath. “I want my mom back.”

“I’m right here, John. I haven’t gone anywhere...”

“You’re different. Everything is different.”

“No...”

“Mom,” John’s voice nearly broke. “What is going on with you and Cameron?”

Swallowing, Sarah struggled against the bile that rose up in her stomach. Did he mean it the way she feared he did? "We need her," she repeated, her eyes searching the horizon as if it would help her find the words that stubbornly eluded her.

"We need to stop Skynet. I remember when that was your priority. That and keeping me safe. Not that... that machine."

"She's not..."

"Not what? Not a machine?"

"Not a terminator," Sarah said with feeling.

"Yes, she is. It's what she was built for, what she was designed for.”

“She...”

“You always understood that, even when I didn’t. You’re the one who taught me not to trust them." He shook his head sadly. "I can't believe I'm the one who has to lecture you about them."

"John..."

"Is it what she did to you?" he accused.

Sarah went still. "What she did to me?" she asked, her voice strained as her heart pounded in her chest.

"The transfusion. Her blood. The nanobots. Are those machines corrupting you somehow? Changing you?"

“No.”

“Because the mother I know wouldn't put one of them above her own life. Above her son."

"I'm not..."

"Not yet."

Finally, the harsh words started to take their toll on her patience, and she closed the gap between them, anger flashing in her eyes. “This isn’t an all-or-nothing game, John. Cameron is here to keep us safe, all of us. To help me protect you. I... I need her.” She choked a little on the words, on the truth of them. “I can’t do this by myself anymore.”

John stared at her with a mixture of compassion and hurt. “You don’t have to. I’m here to help you. I came back...” he let his words trail off, not quite ready to tell her that he came back to take over her duties, her burdens. “I don’t need you to take care of me anymore.” He took a deep breath and let it out, and some of the tension drained from his shoulders. “In fact, that’s why I’ve been wanting to talk to you. Danny and I have been thinking about striking out on our own.”

“What?” Sarah felt all the breath leave her body in a rush, and she put her hand on the picnic table to keep from staggering.

“It’s good tactics, to have more than one base of operations,” John explained hurriedly, not looking at her. “That way, if anything happens to one of the locations, there’s a fallback.” He held up a hand to stop her from protesting. “We’re logging a lot of time online, and using a lot of power to run computations. It’s a red flag to anyone who cares to check, way out here in the suburbs. We were thinking that we could set up in a tech incubator center to disguise our footprint. We’ll look like a couple of computer science geeks with a tech start-up.” He met her eyes then, his gaze firm and pleading, both at the same time. “We’ll blend in, a lot better than the bunch of us all living in this house.”

“You want to leave?” The words were torn out of her, and his eyes dropped to his boots.

“I think it’s time,” he replied quietly.

When Sarah simply stared at him in pained incomprehension, John reached out to take her hand. She avoided the gesture and turned away hurriedly. After a long silence, he finally turned and fled, disappearing into the house without another word.

As his eyes were adjusting to the darkness of the living room, John stumbled into a chair. Swearing, he pushed it out of the way and headed for the stairs, only to pull up short at Cameron standing on the bottom step, watching him without a word. He gave her an uneasy look as she cocked her head to the side and stared at him with an unfriendly gaze. Reconsidering his path, he headed past her to the door, feeling her eyes upon his back the whole time.

***

“What do you think they’re fighting about?”

James kept his attention on the book in his hands, but he was all too aware of Terissa lingering at the window, watching the drama unfold between mother and son below. “Take your pick,” he drawled.

“Must be so hard,” she murmured. “Knowing you are meant to lead mankind. Knowing you’re the woman who has to raise that man...” 

James glanced at her then. “I remember a time when you took Sarah’s name in vain.”

Terissa gave him a sideways look, but a knowing smile was on her lips. She moved away from the window. “I imagine there will still be times when I do the same.”

“The woman does inspire some creative cursing.” He placed a bookmark between well-worn pages and shut his Bible for the night. “I heard John and Danny talking...”

Sighing, Terissa sat down on the edge of James’ bed. They had become friends when he’d been an agent, and she found herself often seeking out his familiar features when things got too out of hand in the overly-crowded house. “I don’t like it.”

“They’re right, though. We could be calling attention to ourselves, all of us in this house. Maybe this is the best way.”

“Remember what I said about quail?”

“That they’re dumb birds?”

Terissa smiled again, but it was weaker this time. “That flying away is what gets them shot.”

“They’re big boys. They’ll be fine.”

“John is used to this. My son isn’t.”

James stood and came over to sit next to her on the bed. “They both need to be out on their own awhile. It will do them good.” He patted Terissa’s hand where it rested on her knee. “And you know Cameron will find a way to keep an eye on them both.”

They sat in companionable silence for a moment.

“Maybe they aren’t the only ones who should leave,” Terissa finally murmured.

Beneath them, a door slammed. They listened silently as someone stormed through the house and out the front door. Moments later, the van roared to life and backed out of the drive.

“Maybe,” James agreed, suspecting that a little space might do everyone some good.

***

Hours passed with no sign of Sarah. Cameron had let her be, believing she would come to her when she was ready, but with Savannah asleep in Sarah’s bed and Danny and John quietly packing upstairs, Cameron could no longer deny the urge to check on her lover. She walked down the rickety basement steps as quietly as she could, but all of Sarah’s attention was on the makeshift heavy bag hanging from a beam, the force of her punches causing it to swing wildly in the small space.

The sight was both arousing and concerning. Cameron watched without a word, taking in the flex of muscle with rapt attention even as she monitored Sarah’s overly-elevated heart rate. No one could keep up the pace Sarah was maintaining on the bag, and Cameron decided to linger even though she suspected that her presence wouldn’t be welcome.

She had heard every word between John and Sarah in the yard, and it had taken a startling amount of self-restraint not to intervene. Privately, she agreed with John’s decision to strike out on his own, even if she wasn’t overly fond of his choice in companions. But John had hurt his mother. Cameron didn’t know if he had done so on purpose, but she didn’t care. His lack of appreciation for everything Sarah had sacrificed to keep him safe had torn Sarah to shreds. Cameron could empathize with his pain and his confusion, but that was no excuse for him to talk to his mother that way.

“Sarah,” Cameron began only to be silenced by a sharp shake of Sarah’s head.

“Not now, girlie.”

Cameron watched for a few minutes more before stepping behind the bag, catching it easily as it swung toward her. Sarah paused, surprised by the move, but her hesitation only lasted a moment. Cameron wordlessly held the bag steady as Sarah rained blows down on the worn canvas, sweat dripping down her forehead to mingle with unshed tears on her cheeks. Cameron waited quietly as Sarah worked the edge off her anger and wore herself down with exhaustion. It was hard to watch, but Cameron knew this was Sarah’s way.

It took another fifteen minutes, five more than Cameron had anticipated, before Sarah slumped against the bag, all the fight draining out of her. “Why is this so hard?” she asked suddenly, her breath coming in harsh pants. “He left me once. I should... I...”

Cameron caught her as she slid down, gathering the other woman into her arms as if she were a child as the tears began to fall in earnest. She half-expected to be shoved away.

But hands fisted in her t-shirt and pulled her close as Sarah broke down in her arms, and Cameron could find no words to describe the feelings that washed over her. Sarah so rarely let her vulnerabilities show, and Cameron was beginning to understand the level of trust that it took for Sarah to show any weakness, much less accept comfort when it was offered. Almost more than the expression of her desire, this simple act spoke to the emotions and deep bond that had developed between them, and Cameron cherished the moment even as she did everything she could to make it better.

It hit her then, the reality of the changes in their relationship. Sarah hadn’t tried to pull back or wall her needs off; no barrier kept Cameron from offering the comfort that she wanted to give and no barrier kept Sarah from accepting it. It took her breath away to realize that this was her place in Sarah’s life, and in that second, she realized she would do anything to keep it.

The storm slowly passed, and Sarah quieted, her breathing evening out against Cameron’s neck. It took her a minute to realize that Sarah had spoken, and rather than replaying the snippet, Cameron uncharacteristically asked, “What?”

“I’m tired of fighting.” Even the words sounded heavy with fatigue. “I’m tired of fighting John, Skynet, the future, you... myself.”

Cameron gauged what to say as she thought back through the many fights they had had over the past few months, feeling an answering heaviness in her own limbs. “So we won’t fight,” she said, as if it was the simplest thing in the world.

Sarah chuckled softly against Cameron’s neck. “You really think we can do that?”

“No,” Cameron answered honestly, all too aware of the secret she still kept from the other woman. “But we can try.”

Sarah raised her head, her eyes red-rimmed but clear. “Yes, yes we can,” she agreed with a tired smile. Her fingers reached up and gently traced the curve of Cameron’s cheek. She knew this should feel wrong, that what was between them shouldn’t be, but Sarah knew her soul would starve without it now. Cameron watched her, naked curiosity and obvious concern in her brown eyes. That gaze drew her in, and Sarah didn’t fight her body’s need to brush her mouth over Cameron’s. “I love you,” she whispered, finally letting those three little words slip.

Feeling Cameron stiffen in surprise, Sarah opened her eyes to peek at the terminator, wondering is she’d said something she shouldn’t. The expression on Cameron’s features almost teased a laugh from Sarah’s lips, but she managed to stifle it. Cameron was slack-jawed, her eyes wide with surprise. “You in there, Tin Miss?” Sarah teased gently.

Slowly, Cameron’s eyes focused on the woman in her arms, a warm, indescribable feeling suffusing her entire body. “You mean that?” she asked, a note of wonder in her voice Sarah had never heard before. “Even when I make you angry and keep secrets?”

Sarah’s smile lost a little of its warmth, but she nodded, her arms tightening around Cameron’s neck. “Even then. But try not to do that anymore, ok?”

“Sarah, I...”

The sound of boots above their heads and a loud yell from the kitchen interrupted whatever the terminator was about to say, and Sarah groaned as she rested her head on Cameron’s shoulder. “Now what?” she groused.

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