Fandom: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles
Disclaimer: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles is not mine...though since Fox appears to be dropping it, rightfully it should be up for grabs.
Summary: Slightly alternate time-line, Riley lives...Cameron's glitch continues to make itself known, and Sarah...well Sarah gets to learn what it's like to be in John's shoes...in more ways than one.
AN: Many thanks as always to inspectorboxer, for her help on this chapter, and to revolos55 for getting this back to me on her birthday of all days, and a special thanks tozennie for the technical advice, without which this would have been a lot less plausible.
AN#2: Apologies for how long this chapter took to get posted, I blame my new course, it stole my free time. Chapter 9 is already well underway, so hopefully there wont be a repeat *G*.
Chapter one / Chapter two / Chapter three / Chapter four / Chapter five, part one / Chapter five, part two /Chapter six / Chapter 7
It took longer than an hour.
Evening wore away at afternoon like the steady dripping of water against a stone. The clock in the hall ticked away first the minutes and then the hours, providing an even beat underneath the intermittent hum of traffic and birdsong filtering through the open window. One hour became two, and then three. Eventually the cars and birds gave up and fell silent, leaving only the clock and the steady tapping of keys.
Stiff and sore, Sarah had shifted so that she could lean back against the headboard, pulling her other leg up onto the bed and crossing one ankle over the other. She held Cameron’s limp hand in her lap, refusing to worry about what John might think of it. Hell, Sarah didn’t even know what she thought about it… She just didn’t have any energy left to care.
Waiting. With nothing to do but sit and breathe through the tight band of pain around her chest and ribcage, Sarah found herself studying Cameron’s hand. At first glance, it looked and felt like any human hand. There was nothing robotic about the carefully manicured nails, painted the delicate pink Cameron seemed to favour. There was nothing mechanical in the warm skin, fine hairs and shallow creases over relaxed knuckles. A few random, tiny freckles provided just the right amount of imperfection to perfect the illusion.
Pressing gently, Sarah slid her fingers over Cameron’s, looking for the metal beneath the flesh. Searching for a bolted joint, a piston, something, anything, to remind her that the hand she was holding belonged to a monster. But there was nothing. Skynet had done its job too well.
Awake, Cameron could not fully shake the stiffness of the machine she was. For those who knew what to look for, it was there in every move that she made, every awkward tilt of her head and monotone word she spoke.
Asleep, or whatever the equivalent state of unconsciousness might be for a cybernetic organism without her chip, Cameron’s body was relaxed, free and natural in a way that defied its components. She didn’t look dangerous. Right now, with her doll-like features softened, and long curling hair spread in a halo around her head, Cameron resembled nothing so much as some misguided storyteller’s idea of a mechanized Sleeping Beauty, except that no kiss was going to wake her from this nightmare.
Stilling her fingers, Sarah forced herself to relax her grip, abandoning the attempt to find tactile proof of Cameron’s metal core. She didn’t need to feel the machine to remember it was there. The hand that had been given to her so trustingly could kill her just as easily. More importantly, it could also kill her son.
When it came to Cameron and her chip, John had shown no more sense than a three-year-old reaching for the bright glow of a hot stove, and he was just as likely to get burned.
Knowing all of that, and with the memory of the last time they had gone through this fresh in her mind, Sarah should not have felt the need to hold Cameron’s hand. Girl or machine, whatever Sarah called her, it didn’t change the facts. Sarah should have been appalled by her misplaced sympathy, and sure in her determination to do what had to be done.
But all she felt was tired. Tired and sorry, for all three of them.
As the natural light offered by the setting sun ebbed, the glow of the laptop’s LCD screen seemed to brighten by contrast. Shadows slipped down the walls from their homes in dusty corners, creeping along the floor and engulfing the room in a monochromatic silence, broken only by the still-steady ticking of the clock.
By the time John shut off the computer and swivelled around in his chair, the room was almost dark. Scrubbing a hand over his eyes, he tried to wipe away the ache and grit of hours spent staring at a screen. It was a wasted effort, as wasted as those hours had been.
Pulled out of her reverie by the protest of leather and coiled steel, his mother stirred and lifted her head. Even in the semi-darkness, John could see the hope in her eyes flash and then fade. She knew him too well to deny the defeat he could feel hanging on his face.
“You can’t fix it, can you?” Hollow and barely a question, Sarah’s words nonetheless made the truth real.
“No…” John shook his head, pulling Cameron’s chip free of the tangled combination of computer hardware and gaming platforms. He curled his fingers around it protectively. “Not now. In ten years …” he admitted, his voice flat. “In ten years, if I had access to the same resources as future John, then maybe...”
“We don’t have ten years, John.” Sarah said it gently, and John fancied he heard a note of real regret in the admonition. It figured, that now, when she had every reason to distrust Cameron the most, his mother would finally see the terminator as something more than a tool. Or maybe not. He’d seen his mother silently mourn the loss of a favourite gun, and no matter how many times her Jeep got lost, destroyed, or left behind, she always found a way to replace it. Sarah Connor might deny sentiment, but she was overflowing with it. Perhaps her concern for Cameron was spurred by nothing more than the attachment she harboured for any of the rare constants in her life.
It didn’t matter. John had analyzed the chip, using what he’d learned from Vick’s, and what little Cameron had been able to tell him, and the conclusion was as clear and inevitable as his mother’s reaction to it would be. Cameron was broken, and there was nothing he could do about it.
Failure tasted like ashes in his mouth, and John swallowed. “I know.”
“Tell me.” The command was unexpected, and John looked up, feeling his eyebrows push together quizzically. His mother met the silent question with her usual impermeable wall, but John could see green fire burning in her eyes. Hope jumped unexpectedly in his chest. Like the last gasp of a netted fish, it groped after the chance for life.
Ruthlessly, John pushed it down, running his thumb over the surface of Cameron’s chip. “There’s still physical damage,” he began hesitantly. “More than I thought.”
Sarah nodded, but didn’t comment. That much they had assumed.
John appreciated her silence as he struggled with finding words to explain a level of technology he only barely understood himself. “We were wrong,” he continued finally, starting from the beginning. “The Resistance isn’t reprogramming terminators, not the way we thought they were. They can’t just erase Skynet’s code and replace it with their own. That original program isn’t only software loaded onto a chip, it’s integral to the operation of the entire system. Without it, they might as well be human-shaped doorstops.”
“So what are they doing?” Sarah asked when he paused for a breath.
“They’re…” Here John took a moment to organize his thoughts. “It’s like they’re taking an attack dog, chaining it to a house, and calling it a guard dog. They can’t change the form, but by rewriting the secondary lines of code and putting in a set of instructions that allow that code to override the core program, they can manipulate the function.”
“And this works?” Sarah sounded skeptical.
“Usually,” John hedged. “But if either the secondary code or the reversal instructions stop working, then the terminator goes back to doing what it was originally programmed to do.”
“Like trying to kill you,” Sarah observed neutrally, the very evenness of her voice betraying her tension. “And this is switch that got flipped in the explosion?”
Encouraged by the fact that his mother was still asking questions instead of sending him for a hammer, John nodded. “Sort of… the physical damage to Cameron’s chip corrupted some of the resistance coding, but most of its still there and running. The bigger problem is with the reversal instructions. They’re intact, but they should be automatically giving the resistance code priority whenever there’s a conflict with the original program, and that’s not happening. Without that override, the resistance code is useless, just background noise.”
“So the twitching is…?”
“An outward manifestation of the conflict between her core program and the resistance code,” John explained. “Think of it as a computer freezing up, or crashing.”
Sarah frowned. She glanced down and John followed her gaze to her lap, where her hand still lay wrapped around Cameron’s. He watched as her fingers loosened, almost drawing free, and then closing again. John could see her jaw tighten before she turned back to him, her expression a characteristic hybrid of fiercely repressed desperation and pure grit.
“I need a reason why that isn’t a death sentence, John. If this override isn’t happening, then why are you still alive?”
John hesitated before answering. This was where things were a little confusing. Even Cameron didn’t understand it completely.
“That’s the question…” he admitted. “The reversal instructions were coded to be automatic, so that there would be a smooth transition of priority back and forth between the resistance lines of code and Skynet’s. Somehow, Cameron managed to convert the instructions so that they can be run manually, but the corruption to both lines of code makes it complicated… and it doesn’t always work.”
“Complicated,” Sarah repeated, tension bleeding into the forced calm. “What does that mean exactly? What happens when it doesn’t work?”
John shrugged, an automatic nervous reaction under his mother’s intense scrutiny. “Then she kills birds, and throws people into trucks. Skynet never designed terminators to be able to manipulate, or even direct, their own coding. They weren’t meant to be anything but tools or weapons, and it doesn’t seem like future John was able, or willing, to change that. Cameron isn’t even consciously aware of half of the directives coded into her chip. She shouldn’t be able to do what she’s doing… but she found a way.”
Sarah was quiet for a minute, her focus turning inward as she processed John’s explanation. “So,” she began eventually. “What you’re saying is, Cameron didn’t kill you because she manually overrode the directive? She chose not to kill you? And every day she’s making that decision over and over again, and at any time, she could fail, or decide differently?”
“Essentially… yes.” John agreed reluctantly, trapping Cameron’s chip between his palms, as if by hiding it he could protect it from harm. “But I trust her, and if she was going to screw up there, it probably would have happened already.”
This time the pause was longer, and John could almost see his mother weighing the information, balancing Cameron’s value against her threat. The idea of a machine with free will obviously didn’t make her happy, but sixteen years of experience told John she was conflicted. That insight, paired with the fact that she still hadn’t let go of Cameron’s hand, gave a last breath of life to the hope struggling inside of him.
“Mom…” he pleaded, discarding pride in the hopes of reaching her. “Please… just give Cameron a chance. She’s been doing all right so far, and now that we know, we can help her. I’ve made crappy decisions, so has Derek, and so have you. We all screw up sometimes… ”
“John.” His name, spoken in a tone known only to mothers, stopped his babbling cold. “You’re asking me to stake your life on the whim of a machine… a machine that even you admit isn’t reliably under her own control, let alone anyone else’s.”
Somehow, his mother’s forced objectivity sparked that answering mulish streak in John. Discarding the half-formed notion of begging like a five-year-old who wanted an ice-cream cone, he crossed his arms instead.
“She’s not just a machine anymore, Mom,” John argued, looking down pointedly at the joined hands in her lap. “Not to me, and not to you. Choice is part of what makes us human.”
“That’s right,” Sarah answered him coldly. “Us, not them. Choice makes them dangerous.”
“Now you sound like Derek,” John shot back.
It hit home. An almost invisible tightening of her mouth betrayed Sarah’s reaction to that barb. For a moment it looked like she was going to argue, but then her expression turned thoughtful, and she sighed, a long, slow release of breath that seemed to carry with it all of the tension that had built up between them. “Give me the chip,” she demanded, holding out her hand expectantly.
John frowned suspiciously. “What are you going to do?”
The expression was wasted. Sarah wasn’t looking at him anymore. Instead his mother’s attention was focused on Cameron, her own brows furrowed pensively. Whatever answers she was looking for in the girl’s serene face, she must have seen something there to reassure her. Raising her eyes back up to John’s, she managed a half smile.
“I’m going to give her a choice.”
Doing her best to obey, Cameron leaned forward over the bathroom sink while John sewed the flap of skin and hair back down over her replaced chip. He was stitching extremely slowly. Cameron shifted her weight, restless without knowing exactly why.
“Cameron!” John sounded frustrated.
Ordering her body to remain still, Cameron waited impatiently for him to finish. “Where did Sarah go?” she asked. It was the first thing she had said without prompting since coming back online, and she was hoping that the question would help her to concentrate. Sarah had been there when Cameron opened her eyes, but the woman had only squeezed her hand once and left, leaving the explanations and clean-up for John.
He had done his best, but Cameron wanted to speak to Sarah about it. She had questions that needed answers only Sarah could give her.
“She said she needed to think,” John told her firmly. “She’ll be back later, and you’re not supposed to follow her.”
“I don’t understand,” Cameron protested, trying to make sense of what had happened. “I’m broken. Sarah should have terminated me.”
John tied off the last thread and snipped it. “There, you’re done.” He put the thread away and set the needle aside to be sanitized. “Maybe she thinks you’re broken in a good way,” he reasoned as Cameron straightened up.
She eyed him doubtfully. “There is not a good way to be broken.”
John shrugged. “Less bad way then,” he compromised with a smile.
“Sometimes you don’t make any sense,” Cameron accused him with a slight frown.
“Welcome to the human race,” John quipped. “We do that. Admit it; it’s what you like about us.” And without warning, he reached out and pulled the startled terminator into a hug. Cameron froze. Unsure of how to react, she held perfectly still, waiting for some indication of what she should be doing in response to the arms wrapped around her shoulders.
“Thanks for, you know, deciding not to kill me,” John muttered, releasing Cameron before she had a chance to decide on a course of action, backing out the door and leaving a very surprised terminator standing alone in the bathroom.
Cameron found Sarah in the shed.
The other woman stood with her back to the door, leaning forward over the crematorium that dominated the small structure, her hands flat against the blackened surface of the stacked cinderblocks.
“You weren’t supposed to follow me,” Sarah rebuked the terminator without turning around. Her voice was low, but the strain running through it was obvious.
Cameron hesitated briefly before stepping through the door, closing it gently behind her. She didn’t need to see Sarah’s face to read the sudden rise in tension as the latch caught, and it troubled her. Logically, if her presence was causing Sarah distress, then Cameron should leave, but she didn’t want to. More than a need for answers had drawn her here.
“I know,” she admitted quietly.
Sarah’s hands tightened on the edge of the crematorium, her fingers smearing pale lines in the soot and ash and revealing the cold grey of cement underneath. “And yet here you are,” she drawled when Cameron didn’t elaborate. “Exercising that free will already are we, girlie?”
Cameron eyed Sarah warily. Sarah’s words were casual, almost teasing, but her tone was dangerous. The contrast was unsettling. “If you did not want me to find you, then you should have left the property,” Cameron pointed out logically.
Dropping her head, Sarah leaned hard against the cinderblocks, a sound escaping her throat that could have been either a laugh or a whimper. Cameron jerked forwards without conscious thought, her hand halfway to Sarah’s shoulder before she caught herself. Sternly ordering the limb to relax, she forced it back to her side, trembling with the effort.
Oblivious to the conflict going on behind her, Sarah finally turned around. Tired eyes dipped briefly to Cameron’s shivering fingers before lifting to meet the terminator’s intense stare. “What do you want from me, Cameron?” she asked wearily.
There was more than one way to answer to that question, but only one that Sarah was looking for. “I want to know why,” Cameron said simply.
Sarah snorted, pressing back against the crematorium and crossing her arms. “That makes two of us… ”
“You have not decided yet?” Unsure, Cameron shifted, glancing quickly behind Sarah at the gaping rectangle where so many terminators had met their end. She wondered if it was the thought of Cameron’s own pyre that had brought Sarah here, and if so, whether that thought was motivated by relief, or regret.
“I thought I had…” Sighing heavily, Sarah uncrossed her arms and ran her hands through her hair. Dark smears followed the tracks of her fingers over her temples, standing out starkly against the pale white of her skin. “Did you know?” she demanded.
“Know what?” Cameron asked, confused.
“That your programming was still half Skynet?” Sarah demanded. “That the override was malfunctioning, that all this time you’ve been one screwed up calculation away from going bad and killing my son?”
Taken aback, Cameron didn’t answer right away. “No,” she said finally. “I knew there was something wrong, but much of my coding is hidden from me. More than I thought.” She paused. “I do not believe John was in danger.”
“But you aren’t sure,” Sarah insisted. “So how can I trust you?”
Cameron hesitated. She did not understand how she could be so certain, it was all still such a confusing jumble of impulses and conflicts. Her two sources of code were bound together, co-dependent, and riddled with contradictions and redundancies. Corruption to both sides made it even more difficult to determine where one ended and the other began.
Cameron should not have been able to choose between directives, but the evidence, and John, assured her that she could. Most of the conflicts were subtle, varying shades of grey that could have come from either of her programmers. But when it came to John, the choices were clear black and white.
“I will protect John Connor,” Cameron asserted forcefully. “That is my mission, and it is also my choice. John risked his life to fix me. I will risk my existence to protect him.”
“Can you promise me that?” Sarah asked, half- threatening, half-pleading.
“Yes.” Cameron resisted the urge to move closer, holding her position with difficulty and willing Sarah to believe her. It was more than a desire to prevent her own termination. Cameron wanted Sarah to believe her, to believe in her. “I can promise you that.”
“Okay…” Sarah breathed out slowly, her eyes falling shut as she exhaled.
Cameron waited, but Sarah didn’t elaborate. “Okay, what?” she asked after a half-minute of silence.
Sarah snorted softly, opening her eyes to pin Cameron with a look of pure exasperation. “Okay, I made the right decision,” she allowed. “The rest is up to you.”
“Up to me…” Cameron repeated thoughtfully. “And if I believe I am a danger to John, or to you… Would you terminate me then, if I asked you to?”
The question, delivered in a monotone that belied the emotion behind it, banished the half-amused annoyance from Sarah’s face. “Is that what you want?” she demanded sharply.
Cameron tilted her head, meeting Sarah’s green-eyed stare calmly. “Is it what you want?” she echoed.
“I…” Sarah’s eyes dropped, flicking briefly back at the crematorium before focusing on the patch of floor between her feet. “No,” she admitted quietly.
“But would you do it?” Cameron insisted, losing the battle to keep her distance and stepping forward jerkily.
Pushing back against the cinderblocks as Cameron moved closer, Sarah didn’t raise her eyes. “Only if I had to.” she answered hoarsely.
Cameron did not understand why Sarah’s obvious reluctance should reassure her, but it did. It was, she realized after a moments thought, exactly the response she had been seeking. The fear that had plagued Cameron since the explosion, intensifying as it became more and more obvious that she was damaged beyond her own ability to repair, eased.
“Then I will do my best,” Cameron said simply. “Will you help me?”
Sarah looked up finally when Cameron stopped with mere inches separating them. The corners of her lips were tight with strain, but she didn’t move away. “I’ll help.” she confirmed, straightening for the extra sliver of space that it gave her.
They stood that way for a breath, and then two. Sorting rapidly through the flurry of impulses clamouring for her attention, Cameron chose one that had its origin in no program that she knew of and chose to follow it. In one swift movement, she leaned forward, wrapping her arms around Sarah’s shoulders and carefully applying a safe amount of pressure to pull her close. It was as near a replication of the hug that John had given her less then an hour before as she could make it.
“Thank you for deciding not to kill me,” Cameron said quickly, releasing Sarah and making her escape before the other woman had a chance to protest.
The hug came and went too quickly for Sarah to react, and then Cameron was gone. True night settled in her wake, stealing the last of the light and warmth from the day, and leaving nothing but a weary chill behind.
Sarah watched it go through the open door of the shed, standing pale and still under the colorless glow of power-saver bulbs in rusted sockets. When the only light left in the yard came from behind her, she shivered, wrapping her arms around herself as if she could hold onto the last fragments of heat that had been so briefly trapped between the terminator’s body and her own.
It was futile gesture. The only warmth that met her fingers was the bright and hot bloom of pain from her ribs, and Sarah wasn’t sure whether to be sorry or relieved.
It wasn’t that it had been a pleasant hug. Cameron had approached the embrace as if it were a mission. She had performed the motions perfectly, stepping in, putting her arms around Sarah and squeezing, but that was all it had been, a performance, a series of steps followed exactly. There had been no give to the girl’s rigid pose, no softness in those long thin arms. Cameron no more understood how to hug than a toaster did.
And yet… The girl had tried. Awkward and inexperienced as she was, with no evidence that her attempt at appreciation would be positively received, she had still tried.
Unexpected, confusing and even a little frightening, Cameron’s effort was also impossibly, achingly, human.
Cameron was grateful to be alive, and she wanted Sarah to know it.
Sarah didn’t know what to do with that. Gratitude was a rare commodity in her life these days, and even rarer was someone being brave, or determined, enough to risk Sarah’s ire in order to offer it. The last person she had thought to look to for either was a machine she had come very close to killing.
Headlights, sharp and bright, cut into Sarah’s thoughts, pulling her back to the real world with a jerk. The crunch of gravel and growl of the truck cut off abruptly, replaced by slamming doors and lilting voices.
Derek and the girls were home.
Despite the considerable temptation of staying right where she was as long as possible, Sarah allowed duty to lift her hand and flip the light switch before moving her feet towards the house. There was a small, petty part of her that wanted to hide, hoarding her last scrap of sanity, but the majority of her knew better. She would cope because she had to, there was no other choice.
So Sarah returned to bedlam.
In the few minutes it had taken her to decide to come inside, Lauren had already coerced Riley and Cameron into helping her put something together for dinner, and Derek had brought a wobbly Jessie out to the table, which he was now trying to set around John and his laptop, while balancing a babbling, wriggling Sydney in his free hand.
Riley and Lauren filled the room with descriptions of the houses they had seen, and the occasional back and forth about the meal preparations. John made the appropriate noises, clearly more focused on his computer than real estate opportunities or cooking, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone. Jessie was a more enthusiastic audience. She seemed to be trying to re-establish her place in the group, even tolerating Cameron’s presence without comment.
Loud, messy, and completely human, it should have been a welcoming scene. But instead it acted like a sheet of sandpaper on Sarah’s poor, bruised psyche. Despite the Aussie’s efforts, there was still definite tension between Riley and Jessie. A home-cooked meal wouldn’t change the fact that Lauren and Sydney were being hunted. Derek would inevitably continue to be a pain in the ass, and in the middle of it all, a damaged terminator with intermittent free will and a loose regard for personal boundaries, grated cheese with single-minded determination.
It was too crowded, too complicated, too domestic, too everything. Before she had even gotten all the way in the door, Sarah was already turning around. Feeling like a coward, she retreated to the porch and dropped onto the steps as her legs suddenly lost the strength to hold her up. Spent, Sarah leaned forward over her knees and buried her face in her arms.
The sound of the screen door opening behind her, and the groan of wooden boards protesting under a weight they hadn’t been designed to accommodate, surprised Sarah not at all. Without looking, she could feel Cameron’s eyes on her back, their steady pressure posing a silent question. Ignoring the terminator had proved to be even less effective than shooting her lately, so Sarah didn’t bother to try.
“What now?” she asked, sitting up with undisguised reluctance.
“You’re upset,” Cameron observed, her neutral tone implying that the answer was as obvious as if Sarah had asked for the colour of the sky. “I don’t like-”
“To see me upset, yeah… I’m starting to get the idea,” Sarah interrupted the terminator, making no attempt to hide her exasperation. “Have you tried not looking?”
The pause was almost long enough to convince Sarah that either she’d imagined the girl’s presence, or Cameron had somehow left without a sound, but eventually the terminator answered her.
“I can’t help it.” Cameron sounded almost as frustrated as Sarah, and that was unexpected enough that Sarah actually turned around. The girl looked down at her intently, her usually smooth face tightened in confusion that gave way almost immediately to wide-eyed concern.
“You’re crying!” Cameron declared, as close to panic as Sarah had ever seen her. She looked away and back almost frantically.
Sarah raised a hand to her cheek, startled when her fingers met wetness. She hadn’t noticed when the tears that had been burning in the corners of her eyes had fallen over.
Cameron stepped away nervously, her eyes going to the door, “I should get John…”
“No!” Sarah reached out and caught Cameron’s wrist, jerking the terminator back. “Don’t.” She loosened her grip slightly when Cameron stopped pulling. “He doesn’t need to see me like this.”
Cameron’s stricken eyes suggested that seeing Sarah cry wasn’t doing her equilibrium any good either, but she stepped back to the edge of the stairs.
Relieved, Sarah let go, draping her arm back over her knees and staring out across the dark yard. Her initial irritation with Cameron’s intrusion faded as the tears dried on her cheeks and Cameron said nothing more about them. Of anyone who could have seen Sarah fall apart, Cameron was the least likely to judge her for it.
“May I sit?” The question came after five minutes of almost companionable silence and Sarah shrugged, offering mute permission.
Cameron sat as neatly as ever, leaving enough space between them so that there was no chance of accidental contact. “Thank you,” she said after a pause.
Side by side, they watched the stars come out. Or at least, Sarah did. She didn’t know what Cameron was looking at, and she didn’t intend to ask. So long as the girl wasn’t staring at her, she didn’t really care.
Cameron didn’t make any attempt at conversation. She showed no inclination to ask why Sarah had been crying, or when she was planning to go back inside. Cameron didn’t tell her it was going to be okay. She just sat, hands on her knees, eyes straight ahead, giving no outward sign of curiosity or impatience.
Her undemanding presence was just as strangely soothing as Sarah had found it before. More so. This time it wasn’t merely the absence of expectations that Sarah found restful. In the dark, Sarah could almost admit that just having Cameron there was comforting. Which lead to the unsettling realization that it hadn’t been the terminator’s intrusion that had irritated her, but the fact that Sarah had not only expected Cameron to follow her, but had hoped she would.
“I understand,” Cameron said abruptly to the empty yard.
Sarah frowned. “Understand what?”
“Why you’re out here.” Cameron turned her head, brown eyes wide in the weak porch light. “It was easier, when it was just you and John… before me, and Derek and everyone else. You’re afraid that we’ll come between you, distract you, that you won’t be able to keep John safe with all these people in the way. You’re worried that you can’t handle it.”
Dumbstruck was too mild a word. “How…” Sarah shook her head. “How do you know that?”
“Because it is the same for me,” Cameron answered easily, looking back out over the moonlit grass. “With John, I know what to do. I am less… confused, when it is just him.”
Sarah wondered what it said about her, that the only person who seemed to understand how she felt, wasn’t even properly a person. Was she becoming too much like a machine, or was Cameron becoming too human? The line between them seemed to be blurring. “Then what are you doing… out here, with me?”
Sarah’s question brought the confusion back to Cameron’s profile. “I am not sure.” She tilted her head. “I think it is easier, only caring about John. But it is also… lonely.” Cameron turned back to Sarah, shifting a little nearer on the step. “You are alone as well. I want to help.”
Denial was automatic. “I don’t need your help!” Sarah snapped.
“Yes, you do,” Cameron insisted stubbornly.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about!”
“I do.” Cameron turned towards Sarah, lifting a hand and laying her fingers on the side of Sarah’s neck, over her pulse. “When I came outside you were crying, your biological readings indicated acute distress. Now you are not crying, and your stress levels have dropped.” She removed her hand. “I made you feel better.”
“I…” Sarah couldn’t actually refute that logic without outright lying… and she was pretty sure Cameron would know if she tried it. “That doesn’t mean I need you…” she muttered mulishly.
“I’m sorry,” Cameron apologized with every evidence of sincerity. “We’re you enjoying being upset?”
From anyone else that question would have been sarcastic. Coming from Cameron it just made Sarah feel like a belligerent child. “No…” she admitted grudgingly.
“Then you need me,” Cameron said, and her smile was smug, or at least near enough to make Sarah reconsider that whole sarcasm thing. Cameron was getting too damned good at this.
“Don’t push your luck,” she warned.
“It’s okay,” Cameron reassured Sarah, almost patronizing. “It will be our secret.” She stood and held out her hand. “You help me, and I’ll help you.”
“We’ll see.” Feeling the beginnings of a smile teasing at her lips, Sarah took the offered hand and allowed Cameron to bring her to her feet. She wasn’t prepared to be pulled into the terminator’s arms.
Startled at Cameron’s second attempt at hugging in less than an hour, Sarah waited a beat for Cameron to repeat her earlier performance and let go. When the grip around her shoulders didn’t show any signs of weakening, she waited instead for a panic that never came. Confusion, yes, and a healthy dose of exasperation, but no fear. Somehow, despite the terminator’s blasé use of her strength to hold Sarah in place, there was nothing threatening about the awkward embrace. Which in and of itself should have been more unnerving than it was.
“Uh… Cameron?” Sarah pushed against the girl’s chest, but she might as well have been trying to move a wall. “What are you doing?”
“Hugs make people feel better,” Cameron explained without relaxing her grip.
Sighing, Sarah abandoned brute force in favour of logic. “I thought you already made me feel better.”
Silence. Sarah breathed shallowly, her ribs protesting the rigid embrace. She could feel Cameron’s chest expand and contract against her own, the terminator’s superfluous breath blowing across the side of her neck. Under Sarah’s hands, Cameron’s synthetic heart beat out a slow and steady counterpoint to the staccato race of Sarah’s own.
The hug was both frighteningly intimate, and painfully awkward. Cameron was wearing one of her characteristic spaghetti strap tops, and Sarah was uncomfortably conscious of the warmth and texture of Cameron’s skin under her fingertips. The terminator’s hair, brushing against Sarah’s cheek, bore the sharp tang of blood and strawberries, a disturbing mix of the machine’s stitched scalp and the girl’s taste in shampoo.
“Maybe I need to feel better…”
Part question, part plea, and so quiet that Sarah wouldn’t have heard it if Cameron’s mouth hadn’t been just under her ear, the terminator’s confession touched a raw nerve. Gritting her teeth against an involuntary rush of compassion, Sarah fought to remain indifferent. But Cameron’s need was almost tangible between them, and before she knew what she was doing, she had relaxed, sagging wearily against the terminator.
“Fine,” Sarah muttered, her lips grazing Cameron’s hair. “But your technique could use a little work.”
“I’m doing it wrong?” Worried, Cameron pulled back just enough so that she could look at Sarah without releasing her.
“Well…” The anxious expression on Cameron’s face made Sarah smile, seeing suddenly, the inherent humour of the situation. “You’re kind of squeezing me.”
“That’s what a hug is, Sarah,” Cameron argued doubtfully. “An embrace, to squeeze someone tightly in your arms, usually with fondness.”
“Technically, yes. But there are levels of pressure, and this,” Sarah struggled demonstratively. “This isn’t comfortable. A hug shouldn’t hurt.”
“Oh.” Cameron relaxed marginally. “Is that better?”
Sarah sighed “Not really,” she said, and watched Cameron’s face fall. “Look, pretend I’m fragile.”
“You are fragile.”
Stung, Sarah frowned. Compared to Cameron she was may as well have been made out of antique china, but the girl didn’t have to rub it in. “More fragile,” she corrected with a huff. “And here,” as Cameron loosened her hold, Sarah managed to get her arms free and she repositioned Cameron’s grip, sliding the terminator’s hands down to her waist. “Don’t clutch at me like I’m about to run away, it’s a hug, not a trap.”
“But the likelihood of you running away is very high…” Cameron protested, clinging a little tighter.
Caught, Sarah scowled up at Cameron, inexplicably annoyed by the inch the girl had on her, and not appreciating Cameron’s too-accurate assumptions. “I’m not going anywhere,” she snapped. “So relax!”
Just to prove her point, Sarah tentatively returned the embrace, running her hands up Cameron’s bare arms to her shoulders. It was surreal, being this close to Cameron, and Sarah blamed the strangeness of situation for the fact that she forgot to check for any sign of the metal underneath Cameron’s appealingly smooth skin.
“Okay…” Wide-eyed, Cameron watched the progress of Sarah’s hands, blinking when they reached their destination and stayed there, pressing gently to either side of her neck. Leaning into the contact, she softened her hold until she was no longer clutching so fiercely at Sarah’s sides and back.
Sarah let out a sigh of relief when the pressure on her ribs eased. It was replaced by a much more pleasant caress as Cameron smoothed her hands gently over the thin fabric of Sarah’s shirt. Pulling Sarah closer, Cameron turned her head so that she could rest her cheek on Sarah’s shoulder.
“Better?” She asked again.
“Much,” Sarah confirmed. Almost comfortable now that she could breathe again, Sarah let herself relax. It was supposed to be for Cameron’s sake, the hug… but that didn’t mean she couldn’t let go, just for a minute or two.
Cameron’s hands glided softly up Sarah’s back, leaving a trail of anxious nerves in their wake as the girl tucked herself in even closer. Sarah accommodated the shift automatically, bringing Cameron more completely against her. The girl was warm in her arms, and surprisingly pliant. It felt… nice.
The pleasant tingling that Cameron’s stroking hands were raising gave way to a sudden shiver, bringing that realization abruptly home. It felt way too nice. “Cameron…” Sarah began guardedly, pulling away. “This-”
The banging of the screen door interrupted her, and Sarah snapped her head up, freezing when she saw John standing wide-eyed in the doorway. If the expression on his face was any indication, the hug also looked way too nice.
“John!” Sarah yanked herself out of Cameron’s hands, stepping back quickly and trying desperately to deny the warmth they left behind. “I… what do you need?”
“It’s… um…” John looked from Sarah to Cameron and back again. “Dinner’s ready,” he managed, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “And I’ve found something, online, that you should look at…”
“Right.” Sarah jumped at the chance to get out of this awkward tableau as gracefully as possible and moved past him into the kitchen. “You’d better show me then.”
“Okay…” John followed her with a last glance back at Cameron. “Is she…?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Sarah cut him off. There were five other people sitting at the table, and she did not want to have this conversation in front of Derek, Jessie and the girls, if at all. “What did you find?”
“Oh, it’s um…” John sat down at the table and pulled his laptop forward, tipping the screen back so that she could see it. “I was looking for strange news reports in the week before the drive-by shooting where the other
“Let me guess,” Sarah asked dryly. “He also saw a naked man walk out of it?”
“No…” John said, scrolling down and pointing. “He saw three.”