DISCLAIMER: The Sarah Connor Chronicles and its characters are the property of James Cameron and Fox. No infringement intended.
ARCHIVING: Only with the permission of the author.
CHALLENGE: Written for Epic Proportions 2009.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Flashbacks are in italics.

Serenity Point
By A.P. Stacey


The twisted trusses of melted, blackened steel rose like grotesque, bald tree stumps stretching high into a night sky so clouded and thick, that not a single star shone through and what little horizon was discernible was illuminated only by the occasional gout of flame. Debris exploded into the air as concussive missiles launched from nowhere buried themselves deep into the scorched mud and detonated with a rolling bang, like the clap of thunder following lightning.

Over the barrages, the steady thumping of heavy artillery provided the bass notes of a symphony of offensive death, that included the chattering wails of anti-personnel weaponry that could rend a man's skeleton of its flesh and muscle in a single sweep. Powerful tunnels of blinding light scanned the scarred landscape, as the deafening roar of turbine engines marked Hunter-Killers as they powered overhead and unleashed sporadic destruction from chin-mounted auto-cannons.

Derek Reese, acting Commanding Officer of the Fighting New Mexico 24th felt his legs buckle as the cratered ground underneath his boots heaved and shuddered under the impact of withering missile fire. Throwing his arms out in a doomed bid to keep his balance the fresh-faced youngster fell forwards, his rifle and forearms disappearing into a thick quagmire of mud and brown water that he resisted only until a screeching Hunter-Killer's wild firing overhead brought his body and face firmly down to meet the sludge.

Motionless, the Corporal patiently waited for the automated flying machine to continue its killing further north, raising his head slightly as the whine of its oversized turbine engines faded to be replaced by the loud thundering of artillery which seemed the only sound powerful enough to break through the tinnitus that had virtually deafened him. For several moments Reese could no more remember his own name, than he could recall his mission or the reason he was slinking between the shattered city husks of a civilisation all but made extinct.

Derek spluttered as he felt a powerful hand grab him by the scruff of his uniform's neck and pull the dazed young man up from the mud. Fumbling with a rifle now slick with sludge and water, he broke free of the hold and rolled to meet the soft ground with his back. His jaw set tightly Reese brought the muzzle of the weapon to bare knowing that he would have only a single chance to destroy the metal bastard that had given him a helping hand.

Desperate eyes glanced first at the rifle which spat not a single bullet in his defence, even as he squeezed the trigger for a second time, and then at the decidedly tan-coloured face staring back at him without a hint of steel malice, and more than a little amusement.

"The Mark Seven Infantry Pulse Rifle is a fine weapon Corporal!" The voice boomed with mocking and the slightest edge of command authority. "It'll fire in temperatures as low as minus fifteen degrees Celsius and in excess of fifty! It has a stock made of solid composite plastic that'll take a Chrome Job's lickin' and keep on tickin'. What it is not, however, is your mother. By the looks of it that weapon's been fired fewer times than I think you'd like to admit to me or your mother. Your real one."

Wiping the perspiration from his eyes Reese suppressed the urge to sigh as his gaze settled on the man bearing the epaulettes of a Captain looming over him. He was a good deal older than Derek, sporting a week's worth of stubble and a decade's worth of cuts and pockmarks in his flesh. The armour he wore was only superficially similar to the Corporal's - of the same original manufacture but customised and repaired many times over.

Struggling to his feet Reese offered the older man a textbook salute while making an effort to clear some of the mud from his tunic sleeves. Receiving an incredulous look the Captain responded with a sloppy salute of his own. "My mother's dead sir," He replied with a nervous shrug.

The Officer's chapped lips twisted into a grin, a gauntleted hand slapping Reese square in the back with considerable force. "Unless the constant battle, killing and survival have finally caught up with me and sent me off the deep end you look fairly alive to me, Corporal. What is this, fourth run out?"

"Third mission sir," Derek replied, wincing as a particularly close missile impact rained earth and dirty water down on the two men. "Passing out from Odessa Bunker to Serenity Point; intelligence monkeys have wind that those metal bastards know where Serenity Point is and are planning a bloodbath. I was supposed to reach SP and prepare to evacuate."

"It's been a long time since I was young enough to feel nerves son," The Captain said evenly, "But it seems to me that Command is asking you green caps to save the world with a week's fire training and some plastic chest armour. EVAC mission on your third trip out? I'd heard casualties were hitting us in deployments but I'd no idea we were sending out the babes … Where's the rest of your squad?"

Reese's dirty features twisted to form a scowl, his fingers still wiping away the slick mud from his rifle in an attempt to clear the jam. "No squad sir," He replied with his gaze fixed on the firing chamber as he pushed out a thick glob of dirt. "Command said no cover available in this sector - too hot to move in reinforcements--"

"Too hot?" The officer boomed as the sky around him lit up with a half-dozen blossoming explosions. "They send a green cap to carry out an EVAC on his third combat mission, on his own, because the sector's too hot? What the fuck are those brass monkeys up to? What the fuck is John Connor up to!"

Both men sprawled as the ground shuddered under another barrage of impact fire. Shouldering his rifle the grizzled officer grumbled and turned his attention back to his young charge. "Seems like you'll need some help Corporal - Serenity Point you say?"

Derek nodded, his fingers gripping the barrel of his rifle nervously. "Serenity Point sir."

"Name's Razak," the Captain muttered back as he broke into a crouched run behind a shattered and twisted frame of metal jutting out over the bleak landscape. Risking a glance over the shattered ridge the officer nodded in satisfaction and gestured for Reese to follow.

Derek's eyelids parted slightly and immediately regretted opening, as the bright beams of a sun shining through a window without curtains drawn flooded his vision and brought a hand up to shield his face. Swallowing against a throat drier than the empty whiskey bottle standing watch on the night stand, the second surviving relative of the future saviour of Mankind sat up slowly, the pounding of blood through his temples limiting any thought beyond the need to empty his bladder. Ignoring the whiff of alcohol that rose from his sweat-stained T-shirt and jogging bottoms, he pulled the door handle open roughly.

Leaning over the sink with his arms splayed, Derek fixed his bloodshot gaze on the unkempt, unshaven face staring back from the bathroom mirror. A sardonic smile appeared on the reflection as he recalled the dreams that visited him since his return to the past, without a single day's respite or failure. Dreams that had never haunted his sleep even when that sleep was taken in a flooded foxhole, with the drone of Hunter-Killers overhead, and Chrome Jobs on foot - miles between the isolated underground bunkers that future-Humanity called home.

Even though the threats facing him, and by extension the Connor Family were a bare percentage of the accumulated future might of the armies of Skynet that he had faced, fought and survived for a decade there was no denying that never before had Reese's sanity so threatened to desert him. Now, when there was a chance to relax - for no matter how short a time - when there were moments he could pretend that Judgement Day and the effective extinction of Mankind could be avoided, hopelessness never seemed to hold such dominion over him.

Adjusting the shower temperature and peeling his T-shirt overhead his eyes settled on the mass of raised, crumpled scar tissue that marked the bullet wound that had so very nearly killed him. Pressing a finger against the wound he noted absence of the feeling of pressure - the nerves that carried all sensations destroyed; torn apart by the single bullet of a thousand successfully dodged that on darker nights, in darker dreams almost gave him the peace he longed for.

Climbing into the shower and feeling the near-scalding water wash away the regrets and overindulgences of the night before, Derek stretched out against the wall and shook his head ruefully.

He needed a drink.

"You're wrong John; Bromine is a Group Seven element, in the Halogen Family. Atomic Number 35, the only non-metallic element existing in a liquid state at room temperature. It is a reddish-brown colour and--"

Although his eyes didn't leave the textbook he was studying John's left hand rose upwards to cut off the Chemistry lecture that wasn't requested or required. "I know that," He replied with an irritated sigh, moving quickly before the confused look on his pseudo-sister's face erupted into more questioning. Closing the textbook, he dropped the pen to the paper and turned to face his inquisitor.

"Define average for me."

The beautiful, almost doll-like features of the Terminator-turned-protector known as Cameron her head cocked slightly as if accessing information not immediately at hand; lips slightly apart, eyes unfocused as though staring through the dining table and not simply at it. "Average, Noun and Adjective; a quantity, rating, or the like that represents or approximates an arithmetic mean."

The robotic monologue faded to be replaced by a warm inflection. "Her golf average is in the 90s. My average in science has gone from B to C this semester."

"Right," John enthused whilst suppressing the discomfort he always felt with the Terminator's ability to switch effortlessly between the emotionless automata he best remembered in the T-101 and the soft tones of a teenage girl who should know nothing about robots from the future, or sentient computers, or the end of all things. "Since you know everything there is to know about Chemistry - more than the greatest minds of this time - scoring high on a High School science test isn't one of your priorities."

"Since I'm destined to be the saviour of all Mankind," He continued with a deliberate infusion of resignation and sarcasm, "The same test is pretty irrelevant to me. All it would achieve is bringing scrutiny that can be avoided. If we can avoid attention, we can avoid some problems."

Leaning backwards, John steeled himself for the deluge of where, why and when that was sure to follow. It was with no small amount of surprise that he heard Cameron thank him for explaining, and watched her amend her answer to be similarly incorrect before closing the jotter and offering him a disarmingly beautiful smile.

He suppressed the urge to sigh - Cybernetic organisms indeed.

Sarah tucked a handful of her raven locks back behind an ear, her lips fluttering as she blew a lungful of air out in exasperation. Glancing up from the bed she sat cross-legged upon her eyes fell on the few items in the Spartan room apart from the bed; the secure gun crate underneath, and the file boxes full of the hundreds of pieces of paper and photos taken from the Resistance Safe House that answered some of their questions and posed another fifty.

As December had drawn in she'd suggested to John they relocate to one of the numerous holiday chalets available in the north of the country for a few days - as much to give them respite from their constant vigilance as to throw Cromartie and whomever else sought them out off the Connor trail, although the response had been lukewarm. Of course when it came to protecting the boy who would become the man who would prevent the absolute extinction of Humanity there was no respite, no break or holiday.

Sarah felt that the illusion of respite was the next best thing, however and with John and Cameron's High School entering a one-off winter shut-down to allow for planned expansion and renovation there seemed no real reason not to. The chilling snow and ice that covered the region and the way a person's breathe floated like mist into the frozen sky was as far-removed from the sandy heat of New Mexico as one could get.

Whether she could convince anyone to go was another matter entirely.

She would relished the change, although lately John seemed more relaxed and even Derek - from what little Sarah had seen of him in the last few days - had managed to keep his perquisite antagonistic relationship with Cameron calm, or calmer. There was only one person that seemed unchanged - their Terminator turned Princess-Protector.

Trust was something Sarah was no longer sure she could believe in. Of course she trusted her son - there was simply too much together that could not be destroyed, or corrupted or simply ignored to do otherwise. Even so, what trust could exist in a world where creatures of metal ignored the very wall of reality - time itself - and freely crossed history wearing deceiving masks of flesh? How could anyone be expected to trust when these merciless killers could take any guise and appearance?

The Metal Princess was an enigma wrapped in a conundrum wrapped in a paradox. Fundamentally the enemy - a machine-agent of Skynet designed to aid it in the annihilation of the Human Race and with every facet of her body and programming optimised to deliver death and murder. A machine-agent that had managed to lose its reprogrammed purpose and hunt her son for a second time and so carry out the bidding of Skynet despite the future John Connor's best efforts and contingency plans.

It had only been the kindness and faith of her son in the present that prevented all thoughts of Cameron being in the past tense. Despite this Sarah could not ignore that the Tin Miss had saved their lives on countless occasions; had battled Terminator units far stronger and more insidious than the original T-101 - defeated once and befriended once - that would undoubtedly have ended the survival hopes of the Human Race years before their ultimate test.

When Cameron had first entered their lives, she was considerably easier for Sarah to understand. Her mannerisms always divided into two types - of the original Terminator persona, emotionless, cold and unwavering. Utterly loyal to the programming and the mission. Occasionally flashes of simulated smiles and nonsense sound bites mixed with pleasantries that would give the surface appearance of Humanity. Easy to differentiate and oppose.

Ignoring the uncomfortable images of her son forced to kill to defend her, Sarah knew the incident involving the Break-in that had seen Cameron disabled by nothing less than a car bomb had fundamentally changed the Metal Princess. Whether chip damage, or a combination of other factors the line between her two behaviours had become blurred - meshed. It was no longer easy at all to see a Terminator masquerading as a young girl, and became possible to imagine and see a psychopathic young girl. A vital difference, for one was a robot pretending to be Human, and the other …

Shaking the thoughts from her head physically, Sarah's attention returned to the open box and the contents sprawled on her bed covers. Target suggestions, tactical reports and a hundred photos formed a chaotic pattern of which any component could signal a weakness in Skynet, or a deadly component that might take their lives in return for interference.

Casting a glance at the digital clock methodically counting down the few hours of the evening remaining, Sarah pulled the file box up from the carpet and began to sweep the intelligence back into hiding for however long she could stomach relaxing without the accompanying guilt overwhelming her and driving the woman back to sift through a thousand sheets of paper. Amongst the ruffled single-sheets her gaze settled on a thick manuscript of a dozen pages stapled together. Conspicuous by its thickness and type face compared to the handwritten scribbles that constituted most of the intelligence at hand, Sarah pulled placed it in her lap.

A faded monotone logo pulled at her attention and though badly copied and smudged Sarah could identify it as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; her stomach knotted in apprehension for the mother-turned-soldier did not need John, or anyone else versed in the modern age of technology to tell her the name of MIT was synonymous with progress and discovery - label words for Skynet and the future apocalypse she sought to avoid. The Department of Computer Sciences identifier seemed to explain the reason for the document's interest to the resistance without much more introduction.

Green eyes traversed the document as quickly as she could understand it - glossing over the names of River Tam, James Deacon, Aluko Sonne and a number of others who were credited as a group for "A Discourse on the nature and concept of Advanced Electronic Awareness (AEA)," as the document identified itself. Sarah's lips echoed the words softly as she struggled to comprehend just what the information on these pages meant in relation to their fight, and by proxy the fight of all the Free Earth to survive.

" … The capacity of the Human Brain as a computational medium is unrivalled by anything yet created in the modern scientific world. It is the most capable and reliable evaluator of abstract information ever perceived. Where a computer can, nowadays, perform calculations well outside the Human capacity to manually achieve it operates in a strict world of binary - one and zero, black or white. While processor speeds increase and Operations Per Second (OPS) double with every passing year we simply make the answers to our calculations faster in their arrival. Our computers do not become more intelligent."

Sarah frowned, trying to discern the relevant from the waffling and scientific indulgence of a group of youngsters with a flair for science, and needless tedious delivery.

"… It is a widely accepted scientific consensus that the next great breakthrough in computational speeds and capability will come with the first systems that imitate the Human Brain, and its capacity to think beyond simple facts to arrive at an abstract, or unexpected conclusion. This author sees evidence of this in former and current generations of automated Chess Computers, such as the Deep Blue. These machines break the fundamental rule of our current computer law - that they can create new data from previously absorbed information; that their source codes are not inviolable but constantly modified and improved and that also, paradoxically for a computer, can make errors with flawless information as a side-effect of the learning process as Humans are wont to do …"

Sarah felt the very blood in her veins slow to a crawl as the discourse began to refer to events that were very probably the vital building blocks of the Machines' victory over Man. Flashes of the Turk, of Andy and his death, of her own hands as they destroyed the young man's possessions and home shortly before his very life itself was burned to nothing tore through her consciousness. Dropping the document to the bed she pushed up to standing and massaged her forehead with both hands - it being all she could do to resist tearing the paper apart.

Her son's voice reverberated from the downstairs, breaking the internal monologue. "Mom! Do you want to burn something in the oven and then order Pizza, or just skip straight to the Pizza?"

Sarah felt her tension ease slightly, a small smile playing on her face. The document would have to be read, whether it made her uncomfortable or not. Skynet did not baulk from the business of ending Humanity, and so the mother of the saviour of all Men would not refuse to read a couple of sheets of paper irrespective of how damning they might end up being. The matter at hand now however, was forcing her son to sit through a deliberately failed cooking attempt in punishment for forgetting that irrespective of his eventual position as Supreme Allied Commander of the Free Earth Forces, he would not be allowed to talk to his mother like that.

The dining room table was the centre of a four-point star of people surrounding grease-stained, flip-top pizza boxes spread haphazardly across the stained wood; in front of each a creased paper plate and an empty glass. Filtering in from an empty Living Room the mindless chatter of the television kept a silence from descending and becoming uncomfortable. Sarah suppressed the urge to grimace as she took another bite of the remains of the slice on her plate and noted absent-mindedly at how quickly it went from piping-hot to nauseatingly cold.

"How's School?" She attempted nonchalantly. The raised eyebrow from her single Son suggested that her attempt at idle conversation was obviously forced. Shrugging his shoulders and swigging the last of the bubbling cola from the bottle John wiped the foam and crust crumbs from the corners of his mouth. "The usual. Hours of lectures, follow-up assessments, long-winded essays and then repeat until golden brown."

"It was very educational," Cameron added almost eagerly. "Today I learned about Venezuela."

Sarah's forehead frowned as she nodded, her eyes shifting between her single child and his "sister". "That's good to hear," She added focusing on John. "Just remember to keep up appearances. If we don't go looking for trouble hopefully it'll take longer to come looking for us."

Glancing down at the pizza and shaking her head slightly the raven-haired woman pushed the paper plate away. "That might be easier said than done to be honest. It's been months since the Air Force Chess Tournament and Andy - The Turk's trail has gone cold and the more time that passes the more likely it is we'll never see it again."

Finishing the beer at hand and reaching for an unopened bottle Derek effortlessly removed the cap with a hiss and took a gulp. He scratched at the stubble shadowing his chin and placed the bottle down on the tabletop with a thump. "There's no reason to think it's even in the country any more. It's been months - Hell, it could be anywhere in the world by now. We've lost it."

"There's been absolutely no mention of anything like The Turk on-line," John added with a shake of his head and a frown of his own. "Shipping records, special insurance claims - If the Turk had been taken anywhere outside the U.S. or Canada there'd be some mention of it somewhere if not in name. It's still in North America. I'm sure of it.

"I've been working on a search algorithm - something for the internet. I'm only in the preliminary design stage but if it works out it'll be able to search mail and freight company records, government contractor databases, IT specialist agencies - anything that might provide a service, or produce something that would be of use to the people who have The Turk. We might not be able to find the computer itself, but we might be able to find the people who are servicing or maintaining it. It's a very sophisticated piece of equipment and it has a lot of specialised requirements."

A self-confessed woman of action, Sarah pushed the technical details and limitations to the side. "How long before you think it'll be ready to search?"

John sighed, scratching at the back of his head with the top of the empty bottle held in his hand. "Difficult to say Mom - It's something I'm doing in what spare time I have. School takes up most of the day and then I've got dozens of Hard Drives to search through manually. Throw in weapon training and the occasional day off and it's not at the top of my priorities."

"Do the best you can," She answered after a moment's hesitation. Sarah resisted the urge to press John to complete it quickly. The slightest hint of irritation in his voice served as a reminder of the pressure the young salvation of the Human Race was under. In recent weeks he had not so much accepted but adapted to resign himself to his assigned fate as the Supreme Commander of Mankind's freedom and she had been loathe to pile more burdens on him. He needed a rest like everyone else at the table.

Sarah's eyes glanced over towards Cameron - almost everyone at the table, she amended. The sophisticated killing machine fashioned in the form of a striking young woman sat stiffly in the chair. Her back ramrod-straight, hands palm-down upon her thighs and eyes fixed on the pizza slice sitting upon her plate with only a single bite mark to spoil its completeness. The only glass at the table untouched and still quietly hissing with carbonated bubbles.

She waited for the Terminator to add her opinion to the mix - as she was oft to do in discussions regarding the mission or security. After several moments of silence save for the television's discount offer on a brand new GMC Pick-up Truck, Sarah took matters into her own hand. "What's your take on this?"

Cameron still did not look up from the table and it was at this point the older woman felt the familiar uneasiness rise in the deepest pit of her stomach - a twisting sense of fear regarding all things with sentience and metal. She opened her mouth to ask again when the guttural tone of Derek cut through the Terminator's daydream and brought her sharp blue eyes level with the group's. "Hey toaster - you going to contribute something, anything? Were you even listening?"

Sarah braced herself for the entire conversation to be replayed with the unnerving accuracy of each of their voices mimicked perfectly by the young woman. Instead her forehead creased to form a frown at the look of confusion in the machine's blue eyes. "I wasn't paying attention."

Sarah quickly moved in to cut off the harsh words certain to come from Reese's opening mouth. They were certain not to be helpful or useful to the debate at hand. "John wants to design a search algorithm for the internet that might track down The Turk based on the type of service and equipment its owners might use or contract in."

Cameron nodded "Thank you for explaining." She turned towards the future leader of the Free Earth and offered the slightest smile which Sarah reconciled with the twisting of her stomach - so perfect, so genuine and warm; so surely replicated and mimicked. Software and programming, not real feeling. "I think it's a good idea, John."

Blue eyes switched their gaze to the mother of the saviour - the smile instantly dissolving into the blank, doll-like expression that had become the virtual trademark of the entire line of Human-mimicking Terminators. "I would like to do something too."

Derek scoffed and gulped down the remains of the beer in the brown glass bottle. "How about you start on stripping down the rifles? I've been asking you to calibrate the sniper scope for weeks now. You're supposed to be our resident authority on killing and you've hardly picked up a weapon in days."

The Terminator showed no signs of acknowledging Reece. "The Parents and Pupils Association are holding auditions for this year's musical production. I would like to try out."

Although Sarah's mouth opened slightly in shock her conscious mind saw the myriad reactions around the dinning table and the dichotomy of their fragile alliance. Almost immediately Derek had thrown the empty bottle to the floor to shatter loudly - rising to his feet quickly and jabbing a finger angrily in the direction of Cameron. Her son, John, his face painted with surprise quickly cocked his head to the side and allowed the briefest smirk to shine through. Tearing a section of crust from the remains of his slice he chewed on the pizza and reclined in his chair.

"Don't be ridiculous!" Derek spat. "You're a mechanical assassin designed from the bolt upwards for murder and espionage … Why am I even trying to explain? You're a Terminator. A toaster. This is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard and I've travelled through time!"

"I don't see the problem," John replied with total opposition to Reese in tone and idea. "Mom, you're always banging on about being normal well this is a perfect chance to show just that. I'm not sure if you've noticed but our lack of participation in anything extra-curricular, your failure to show at a single Parent-Teacher meeting and our total isolation from friends or neighbours is going to become an issue soon.

"It's a small-time musical for old ladies and over-bearing parents who want their children to become stars. It's months away anyway. Something tells me Cromartie isn't scouring the local theatres and productions in case we're hiding away in a production of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat."

"John!" Derek almost shouted with as close to a look of horror as a man as war-weary and jaded as the former/current Commanding Officer of the Free Earth Forces could show. "You can't be serious! She was trying to murder you practically yesterday and now you want to entertain her dream simulations of Broadway? This is madness! Sarah - tell me you're not going to go along with this robot's charade?"

Sarah wasn't sure what to think. So many issues, questions and thoughts fought inside her mind for dominance. She would be a liar if she'd pretended her initial reaction wasn't virtually the same as Derek's - The very idea of a Terminator indulging in what could only be described as a hobby that didn't involve murder or deception seemed as alien as the concept that sentient machines from the future might one day travel back to the past to threaten the future of Humanity.

And yet that was unequivocal fact.

Still, John's words rang true. In an effort to make their family seem as humdrum and boring as possible she had gone too far to one extreme. Instead of appearing painfully Middle-American the Connors appeared introverts, hermit-like and venturing out of their "cave" only when absolutely forced. Cameron was a deadly expert of combat and capable of surviving injuries and incidents that would leave a person broken in half and so she was more than capable of looking after herself. A small part of her was thankful it was not John asking for the same permission.

It suddenly dawned on Sarah that the motives for the request might be far simpler, and more mechanical in nature. Perhaps a suspicion of a sleeper agent in the school, or the young woman positioning herself so as to better aid the success of their operation. Sarah fixed her gaze on the deceptively fragile face opposite. "Why?"

Cameron's blue eyes fixed on their opposite number and seemed as real and clear as any other pair born from a womb, and not grafted from vats of bubbling amino acids and machinery that frequently haunted Sarah's restless sleep. She suppressed the shiver that threatened to run from the top of her spine to the very soles of her feet at the thought of just how Skynet might appropriate something as integral to a person as their eyes for its endless production line of automated murderers.

One of which wanted permission - apparently her permission - to audition for a play. Learning of the apocalypse which threatened the very survival of the Human Race all those years ago was not the biggest surprise to yet fall upon her lap.

"I would like to dance," The lithe young woman replied as if that alone constituted the entirety of her argument. Cameron did not break her glance towards the Matriarch of the Connor Family even as Derek threatened to destroy the kitchen by way of the enormous pressure differential building within his skull. Flesh tinged bright red with a scarlet fury he took hold of the chair in front and sent it crashing to the tiled floor - throwing his hands upwards in exasperation.

"She wants to dance!" He exclaimed loudly but not with the same disbelieving look that had crossed John and Sarah's face for he alone had seen the Terminator dance before. When only the rustling garden hedge and the crickets chirping outside had disturbed the total silence of the house in the early hours of the morning Derek had cast his watchful eye through the slightest crack between Cameron's room's door and its frame to see the artificial assassin in a breathtaking display of poise and elegance.

Impossibly balanced on a single foot and stretched outwards more resembling a ribbon billowing in a headwind than a person. The soothing strings of a half-dozen violins and their accompanying sections of the classical music drifting gently around her from the dresser setting a backdrop that Derek had not seen since before the bombs, and the machines, and the tanks and the death camps and the despair.

He had not seen such dancing since before the end of the world.

For a moment he was a slave to the sight - unable to move or think but rooted to the spot in fond remembrance for a certain woman - a young girl - who had moved with similar grace and beauty and who had captured a teenage Derek's heart so many years ago. The name still passed his lips in the few dreams that did not force him to awake with a cry on his lips and the sweat-soaked bed sheets of blind panic. Miranda - her name had been Miranda.

Then it had struck him like a hail of bullets in the chest, to tear apart his heart and spill his blood to the ashen floor. Miranda had died in the first wave of nuclear Armageddon that Skynet unleashed on the world. She was spared much of the suffering of others as her home, her street, her suburb and the entire city of Santa Fe was consumed by a multi-megaton fireball that roasted flesh from the bone and tore concrete from steel in a blinding flash as the very air itself was set aflame.

It had struck him like a hail of bullets as he watched Cameron recreate the scenes he had originally witnessed - snatched through furtive glances through the streaky window pane of the heavy door to the dance studio of a school that had been vaporised before he had been given the chance to graduate. Derek had come to realise that for all he had done - to help Sarah, and John and the future of Mankind that it none of it might have made the slightest difference.

For all the tormented man knew a young Derek Reese would still grow only a few more years before an impromptu game of catch with his older brother would be interrupted by the appearance of a mushroom cloud billowing over the horizon as the capital city of New Mexico was wiped from the face of the Earth. For all the war-weary veteran knew his childhood sweetheart, Miranda, would still be reduced to her constituent atoms and scattered on a radioactive wind. He could not stand the mockery.

Sarah felt the tension and fury radiating from the brother of her long-lost love as an almost palpable heat which threatened to burn each of them. If the truth was known then she was almost grateful that the chief voice of opposition had come from Derek and not herself - his reaction allowed her to push thoughts of the scientific paper regarding artificial intelligence she had begun to read and now desperately wanted to continue to the back of her mind. She absolutely refused her subconscious holding Cameron as the evidence to the research paper's valid points.

"I agree with John," Sarah said finally as the casting voter without election hoping her voice sounded convinced enough even if she was not. "The enemy is still out there, not around this table. Anything that might keep us in the mainstream - keep us as uninteresting as middle-America is useful …"

Her last few words trailed off slightly as she watched Derek turn and storm from the kitchen without bothering to explain. The loud slam of the front door being virtually torn from its hinges made it clear that the discussion was over.

"The auditions are tomorrow," Cameron added as if she had been deactivated for the entirety of the war of words and noticed nothing peculiar or confrontational. "I need a parental signature. Will you take me to the auditions?"

"Sure," Sarah offered absent-mindedly as she collected the plates from the table and unceremoniously tipped them into the sink. Brushing a raven lock back behind her ear the older woman leaned over the counter and granted herself the luxury of a long, drawn-out sigh. Although she had never doubted the resistance they offered against the machines and never accepted the possibility of their defeat moments like these caused her to wonder whether Skynet really had such a hard time in exterminating all who opposed it.

The Moon played with the shadows cast through the narrow gaps in the curtains of the various rooms of the house, throwing her pale light long and sometimes wide so that abstract shapes stretched out far. The slightest hum of the refrigerator provided the lowest bass notes of a soundtrack to the night, supplemented by the rhythmic ticking of the clocks of the hallway and living room out of step with each other by the slightest moment. Producing a staggered beat that would otherwise go unnoticed by the slumbering mother and son in the floor above.

A single pale hand swept out from the darkness of the corner of the hallway where the Moon's light could not reach and snatched the small timepiece from its tabletop. Running a finger upon the polished oak casing of the clock Cameron brought it up to the side of her head and listened to the endless ticking. Moments stretched to minutes and fully twenty five of them elapsed with the clock to her ear, before the compact machine beneath the girl lowered her hand and carefully opened the small access door, which revealed the multitude of intricate brass cogwheels and silver discs ranging from the small to the tiny. Cameron cocked her head slightly - allowing herself to appreciate the unity that each of the small components achieved as a single function. Each of the spinning wheels and springs were insignificant removed from the machinery of the clock - they would easily be lost, or broken or forgotten.

Likewise any one of the insignificant parts removed would bring the entire system to a halt and make every other component not just insignificant but useless.

As a creation of other machines, Cameron had more in common with the clock she held in her hand than the man who had reprogrammed her in the future - now sleeping soundly upstairs as a boy decades before their first ever meeting should have occurred, or the mother of that boy. Sarah was the mother of John - Was this clock in some way a distant relative?

She did not have enough data, or experience, to know the answer and focused on the task at hand. Identifying a small silver spring coiled too tightly around an axle no longer than the fingernail of her forefinger Cameron reached in without even stopping the clock itself - displaying a deftness disturbingly unnatural at avoiding the running components and carefully loosening the component until her auditory processor confirmed the smaller clock was now running in perfect unison with the larger.

Satisfied with her repair and poised to pull her hand out from the innards of the clock Cameron found that her thumb and forefinger would not move and remained pressed together around the whirring cogwheels and spinning discs. Cocking her head to the side in confusion the compact Terminator concentrated on the autonomic task but found that even with conscious effort she could not separate her fingers and could not pull her hand free without disembowelling the timepiece and destroying it utterly.

Her dilemma was not long in being solved as her forefinger, thumb as well as each remaining finger spread outwards and arched in an irresistible spasm which overcame the not-inconsiderable toughness of the oak and tore the brass and silver from each other to fall to the carpet with a pitter-patter not unlike raindrops from a leaking gutter. The clock face itself fell forward to shatter on the hard floor in a scattering of jagged glass and screws leaving only the frame of the body, minus the front and back, hanging upon her wrist like an oversized bracelet.

As suddenly as the loss of control had been Cameron felt her fingers form a fist at her prompting and then relax as ordered. Bringing the palm up for inspection, she disregarded the multiple cuts from the glass fragments and examined the fundamental components of the limb in electromagnetic frequencies beyond any mere Human eye's ability to see. Her brow furrowed as no immediate problem or obvious malfunction appeared and indeed, there seemed no difference between the phantom hand and its opposite number on any level.

Glancing down at the debris Cameron decided on a firm course of action. She would need to clean the floor - John always dressed before breakfast but Sarah often went immediately to the kitchen barefoot after she woke and could be injured.

That was unacceptable.

Sarah opened a single eye hesitantly as she stirred from another troubled, restless but nonetheless precious few hours of sleep. She felt strands of her fair fixed to her features by the sheen of sweat generated by terrifying dreams she confided to no one irritate and tickle her forehead. Pulling a hand from under the pillow to scratch at the damp skin, she was not even slightly surprised when the cold metal of a gun barrel and not the sharp edge of her fingernail relieved the itch. Opening her eyes fully despite the sting of her tiredness, she brought the chipped, scratched weapon down to rest on the mattress and absent-mindedly set the safety on.

Throwing the thick duvet back Sarah swung her legs over the edge of the bed and took as a deep a breath as her lungs would hold before exhaling loudly. Glancing at the bedside radio-come-clock and noting the unhelpful quadruple zero flashing endlessly on its LED screen she climbed to her feet and snatched the dark blue dressing gown from the single hook on the back of the open door.

She preferred to sleep with it open.

Pulling the satin tie loosely around her waist Sarah ran a hand through her sleep-tussled hair and made her way downstairs. Pausing in the hallway, she glanced at the tabletop clock - or where it had stood ever since they had made this house their "home" - but saw the antique timepiece nowhere. She shrugged her shoulders and deftly avoided the damp bathroom towel dumped in the doorway of the kitchen.

Rolling her eyes and snatching it from the floor, she was able to tell instantly that it was later than eight in the morning - a glance at the bread crusts, butter smears and the refrigerator's vegetable drawer covering the kitchen counters the second clear sign John had already been and gone.

Even after all that had happened - With Kyle, with the original T-101 first sent to kill and then sent to protect her and with the postponement but not the avoidance of Judgement Day. With time travel and the threat of cancer not to mention their killer-turned-bodyguard-turned-budding actress - there will still be rare moments like this scene of domestic mess, which reminded Sarah that while John was destined to lead the Free Earth Forces and battle for all their survival as Commander-in-Chief of Mankind, for now he was still her son, and her baby.

Pulling the last two slices of bread from the crumpled bag on the counter - heels, no less - and rescuing the very last tomato languishing on its own in the vegetable drawer dumped on the tabletop she set about salvaging a sandwich from the mess.

The pale, partially translucent flesh of the wrist offered little resistance to the bare razor blade as it drew a deep line precisely down from under the palm to the midway point between the hand and the crook of the elbow. Following in a wake in the same way a ship's propeller might disturb and tear at the water it cut through a thin trickle of red quickly doubled to spill over the sides of the cut and form droplets of blood, which slid across, and down the arm to draw an uneven, bizarre grid.

Cameron plucked the narrow screwdriver from the pitted, oily workbench with her free hand without pausing to glance at the weeping self-inflicted wound and set about pulling and spreading the two large flaps of flesh, which acted as grotesque double-doors to the internal machinery of the hand. Obscured by very real snaking veins and soft tissue, very real metal nonetheless glinted under the light of the tilted desk lamp. As if to highlight the entire point of the exercise, her hand flexed and curled in involuntary spasm.

Five large actuator cylinders were arranged in a concentric ring around the arm's main endoskeleton - one for each finger and the thumb - and were joined by an array of servos, coordinator units, coolant pumps, power shunts and a dozen devices far more advanced than the most cutting-edge equivalents of the day.

Placing the bloodied screwdriver back on the bench she selected a narrow, crook-ended implement ending in a sharp point. Part of a set of dental tools she had taken from the surgery of the Doctor they had met briefly, under the illusion he had been responsible for the robbery of the house and whose car door she had removed from the rest of the body with a single limb, this hand no less under that same illusion.

She held the tool in the air as she reviewed the information required to diagnose and if necessary repair each of the actuators in turn but her brow furrowed as she found no return on the information. Blue eyes narrowing in concentration as Cameron delved into the huge amount of data which constituted her equivalent of the Human memory and which operated at speeds far beyond even the most intelligent men and women who had ever lived and received the same blank response. She hesitated, bringing the tool closer so that it hovered only a few centimetres from the endoskeleton but found that she could not recall how to proceed.

She pushed the top of the tool into the first actuator without any of the grace or ease at which she had manipulated the clock the night before this morning. A loud whirring sound filled the dusty garage as her index finger flinched violently backwards to press against her palm. She twisted the tool to the left roughly and watched the actuator responsible for controlling the finger begin to vibrate - the sensors within the endoskeleton transmitting the intense vibrations as considerable pain. Pulling the dental instrument free and letting it drop to the desk Cameron felt the pain subside and watched her hand return to rest.

Flexing the fingers several times, the lithe Terminator folded the flaps of flesh back together and retrieved a staple gun from beside the tools she had collected for the task at hand. With brutal speed and effectiveness Cameron delivered six staples to close the wound roughly and pulled on a purple fingerless glove long enough to reach her elbow and cover the entry site.

Unable to explain the lapse she was almost thankful for the reminder of her internal chronometer that she would need to leave in the next four minutes and forty-nine seconds to reach her Audition at the designated time of zero-nine-forty-five.

Turning the desk lamp off the young woman exited the stuffy, dusty garage to find Sarah and left the droplets of blood upon the stained bench and the red-tipped dental tools as a silent testament to the ultimate in Do-It-Yourself field medicine and field engineering.

Derek could feel the heat of the explosion warm the flesh of his face even as he felt himself propelled from the soft mud of the ground and into the air itself. The brown of the crater-marked battlefield and the grey of the never-ending storms in the sky alternated as he felt his body tumble several times over before crashing back to earth under the universal law of gravity. Pulling his face from the freezing mud long enough to clear his lungs with a rapid series of wheezing coughs the young man flopped onto his back and blinked the dizziness away.

"That's the first time I've ever seen someone spot a landmine and set it off at the same time!" A gnarled voice mocked as a shadow loomed over him. Feeling a powerful hand clamp on his wrist and haul him to standing the stunned young corporal feared momentarily that his gaze would soon be matched by the soulless red glare of one of a thousand of Skynet's metal agents of the Armageddon.

"Drink this," Razak grunted as he thrust a dented, pockmarked canteen into the younger man's chest. "Whole area's littered with proximity sensor mines from the Defence of New Santa Fe. Damn things are getting a little unstable in their old age but still have more than enough to blow your legs halfway to Skynet and back."

Derek nodded dumbly, his senses slowly returning as he swigged from the bottle and almost retched. An intense burning sensation raced from his tongue to his teeth, tonsils and down to his stomach. Resisting the urge to gag the youngster found the fortitude to swallow and the aloofness not to clench his jaw at the fire in his belly. He quickly handed the canteen back to the Captain who winked and took a thirsty gulp without so much as a twitch in reaction.

"They still send you rookies out with distilled water, huh?" The veteran asked rhetorically with a grin. "I hear they get that from the cooling towers at the nuke plant …"

Screwing the top on the dented container and pushing it back into his pack the Captain flipped the small sunshade-visor mounted along the top of his faceplate down and gave the ageing range finder and tactical display a few moments longer than it should really take to activate. Dark brown eyes narrowed as the device scanned the rolling crater-topped, mud-slick hills, which stretched out before them. Short shining bars entered on three sides of the display to form triangles identifying threats in the form of roving Hunter-Killers marshalling the skies above and the colossal bodies of Centurion Tanks crunching through the rubble-strewn ruins of Human civilisation in the valleys below.

"Another glorious day in the Free Earth Forces!" Razak concluded with an enthusiastic nod at the dangers that lay between them and Serenity Point. "Ready to save the day son?"

Derek coughed before replying to make sure his voice had recovered from the alcohol or jet fuel-based pick-me-up and nodded.

Testing the capacity of his pulse rifle's magazine Razak climbed to his feet and darted out from the outcrop of rock. "On the bounce Reese!"

There was very little remaining of the town of some twenty seven thousand people that had once straddled the line between Espanosa and Serenity Counties in southern New Mexico. Sufficiently backwater and Middle America to avoid annihilation in Skynet's initial strike against its creators and masters it had the dubious good fortune to have its people slaughtered and its streets and homes smashed and burned by more conventional means of warfare. It had been here that the first of the Terminator armies had converged - T-2 and T-3 automated protectors-turned-killers that had once formed part of the United States Army Automated Combat Forces Santa Fe.

It had been here that the New Mexico National Guard met them in battle, in only the loosest possible definition of the word - armed with nothing boasting more stopping power than rifles and civil control equipment, against machines designed from their very blueprints and from the very dreams of their creators now turned to nightmares, to be the most deadly combat force imaginable.

The town had burned and died in a single afternoon.

Two figures barely visible in the dull urban grey scale and daubed green colour schemes of their armour's camouflage darted between the twisted ruin of what had once been a bustling, burgeoning place to live. Rounding the crumbling brick and mortar of what had once been the corner of the community's Presbyterian Church; Derek threw himself flat up against the charred wall and glanced upwards at the cross still perched precariously on the remains of the steeple. Crooked, cracked but nonetheless standing.

Catching the source of the younger man's gaze Razak shook his head. "I suppose we have our answer as to whether He hears your prayers."

Derek opened his mouth to reply when the slightest thump of a foot against the rubble of the devastation surrounding caused his head to snap around as if able to see through the brick and mortar. Gesturing with a hand, and feeling this palms grow sweaty as they gripped his rifle tightly, the corporal took a handful of careful steps forward - his forefinger curling inside the trigger guard and poised to unleash as much electromagnetic death as the burst limiter of the weapon would allow the moment the glint of metal caught his eye.

Almost out of sight Razak ducked under the low wall and took up an identical position so that both were ready to strike through the ruined semicircle which saw the four feet high wall bottom out to the ground before rising again and provided an excellent kill zone as well as a position for cover. Mouthing the worlds silently, the Captain counted down from three.

Both rifle muzzles swung out in unison at the end of the short count as if wielded by one person though two sets of eyes scanned for their target. There was no skulking machine monster to be found however - no glinting endoskeleton bearing a grotesque grin of teeth in a metallic jaw under burning red eyes and instead of a glare that reflected the soulless nature of the machine construct tiny orbs of blue regarded Derek and Razak with terror and fear.

Reese lowered his rifle in disbelief as he focused on the tiny form of a young girl stood atop a mound of broken masonry and concrete as if a bizarre work of pre-war art on the subject of suffering. Barely three feet in height her skin was a pasty white where it was not hidden by the dirty, torn rags, which passed as clothing and the weeping, scarred welts which pockmarked her translucent flesh. A scraggly mess of blonde hair framed a face smudged with dirt, filth and fear.

Razak was slower to lower his rifle as if he had only just decided that the tiny child could not be a new and even more insidious infiltrator of Humanity - after all, what could be more innocent than the sight that met his aged eyes? What would be a more trusting form than this? Dropping the muzzle of his weapon the Captain passed a silent curse at the capacity of the Machines to sow confusion, manipulation and throw the most core fundamentals of a person out the window.

Handing off his weapon to the corporal Razak climbed over the embankment and stooped down to his knees in front of the little girl - pulling off his helmet and setting it down on the blasted soil. "School got out fifteen years ago, Missy. Where are you supposed to be?"

The girl did not open her mouth to speak but instead extended a tiny arm out and pointed towards the three remaining walls of what had once been a smaller building in the larger Church compound. The Captain's face set grimly as he spied the twisting, snaking scars and welts, which spiralled around the pointing arm, and the filth which when added left little exposed unblemished flesh.

Both men followed their new-found charge through a narrow section of collapsed corridor supported only by the few rusting steel beams, which had not yet been bent or sheared in two by the weight of the lopsided concrete walls bearing down on them. Derek's nostrils flared as the pungent odour of rusting metal mingled with the after-taste of sulphur and carbon in the air. Somewhat distracted he did not realise that Razak had stopped until several feet in front of the veteran and even as he glanced to see, the girl still ahead did a new and stomach-churning aroma waft to his senses.

The stench of death.

His eyes reluctantly followed his nose and fixed on two bodies - or the bloated remains of such lying up against the remains of a ceiling support and badly decomposed. Derek was able to tell one was male, the other female but precious few other details given the rotting that had set in. Shouldering his rifle he watched the young girl gingerly step through the congealed mess which surrounded the pair and stand between them so that his attention was drawn to the fact that both of the bodies seemed to be holding hands.

"What do you think, rookie?" Razak asked after a while.

"He's armed," Reese replied with a gesture. "Old hunting rifle - one shot per load; useless against the metal. I'm not a doctor but these two have been here for a while and they've got what look like bullet holes in their chests. Not a lot - probably not enough to kill them where the stood."

The Captain nodded, crossing his arms over his chest. "Not a lot of folk left in the Badlands nowadays. They've all either found their way underground to us, or they've found their way across the Styx and into the Underworld. Girl won't be long behind I'm sad to say."

Catching the sudden shock and inquisition on the younger man's face Razak offered Derek only the slightest shrug. "She's got burns all over her body - if there's more a classic example of radiation poisoning then I haven't seen it. Probably Tac-Nukes - limited yield portable weapons - used for "precision" destruction on a small to medium scale. Not too long ago."

"Serenity Bunker is the Medevac point for the whole sector - they've got triage facilities, even a surgical bay. They might be able to do something for her sir; we can't leave her like this."

Razak nodded, removing his side arm from its thigh-mounted holster and clicking the safety off. "I have no intention of leaving her like this, corporal."

Derek was across the short distance between them in a moment, positioning himself to stand between the girl who had not yet moved a muscle but continued to stare at the two men and his superior and saviour who had apparently chosen now to lose his mind completely. "You can't be serious … Sir! She's just a girl! She's just a girl!"

Without warning Razak's gauntleted fist lashed out to take a hold of Reese by the top of his chest armour plating and brought the young man forwards off the blasted soil to come face-to-face. The corporal struggled but with his entire bodyweight being limply held by the straps of his armour, he was powerless to resist.

"Look at the facts rookie," The Captain began with a hiss. "We're only two men moving through territory crawling with the enemy on the land and in the sky. We're putting foot to ass to get to Serenity Point in time to ensure our mission is evacuation and not a fighting withdrawal. That complex has the only Orthopaedic Surgeon and his specialist team this side of the ruins of Santa Fe as well as an Aladdin's Cave of drugs and medical supplies, which will take time to get to safety.

"You know as well as I do that this little girl is waiting for the ferryman across the black river. Even if she stood a chance with the right treatment she'd slow us down and only make sure that we've got a third pair of eyes to see SP burn under a metal wave whenever we eventually arrived. This is war, Son - I don't like it and I know you don't like it but here's the truth - we don't need to like it. If we take her with us we're signing the death warrants of thirty people at least and hundreds more with the loss of the skills of the people in that bunker.

Razak dropped Derek to the ground and took a step back. "I'm not asking you to do this rookie and I'm not even asking you to accept it needs to be done. I just need you to accept that there's nothing you can do to change it.

"I had three little girls before the war," The Captain added almost as an afterthought. He did not further explain but Reese could feel the angry fists of his temper hammering against the walls of inevitability regarding their situation. He had seen victims of radiation poisoning before and it was true enough that this little girl seemed doomed at the cellular level; Slowly being undone by an invisible killer possibly deployed years before she had even been born.

They could not simply leave her here to continue to wait by the corpses of what were presumably her parents. That would be no better than the metal monsters who had taken them from her in the first place and presumably deployed the weapons that had sealed her fate. With a long drawn-out sigh he could almost taste the bitter irony that the machines were immensely talented in forcing Mankind to continually strip itself of the only difference between them - the capacity to feel, not simulate.

Slowly drawing his own side arm from its holster Derek shook his head and held the weapon behind his back. Crossing over towards the little girl he stooped over on bent knees and brushed some of the grimy hair from her dirty features. "Do you have any toys you like to play with?"

The little girl nodded, again pointing a scarred hand towards the way.

"Why don't you show me your toys?" Derek asked as soothingly as the turmoil and emotion swirling within him would allow. As the youngster nodded and toddled off around an outcrop of smashed masonry the corporal directed a glance back at his Captain and offered the slightest shrug of his shoulders.

"You had three little girls," Derek said simply with a nod.

As he rounded one of the dozen ruined walls which once divided the Church compound he considered the pointlessness of it all - of everything they were fighting for. He battled alongside hundreds of thousands throughout the post-apocalyptic world for the survival of the species and yet so routinely they actively participated in the deaths of not only their own, but children - the epitome of the future and the hope of Mankind.

His rational mind repeated Razak's mantra. That when Skynet was vanquished and Humanity emerged from its hardened shelters and sewer-cities to rebuild a new world and a new era of peace then all this will have been worthwhile but now, during the battle for the chance to build that new world, there could be no compassion for those less fortunate save the compassion to end their misery. There could be no hesitation in dedicating all resources to the fight for survival - if it were lost then nobody would live to remember those sacrificed to restore all that had been lost.

Derek felt the hot sting of tears irritating the skin on his features as he watched the little girl pluck the remains of a stuffed animal from cracked faded-blue plastic box hidden amidst the rubble. Missing its left paw and right leg the Teddy Bear was in a sorry condition of filth and decay. Its fur long stained grey by the dust and choking debris that marked this ruin as a child's playground and home, it stared out at the remains of the post-nuclear horror with a single remaining button-eye.

As if somehow aware of what was to come to pass the little girl kept her back presented to Derek - dunking the head of the Teddy Bear into a stagnant pool of dusty water and rubbing the fur with a silver brush - minus its bristles - also taken from this simple blue box that seemed to hold the last shattered remnants of innocence; of fun and play and the only way to forget the horror and death that surrounded.

Raising the barrel of his side arm Reese steadied an aim that struggled to rely on eyes half-blinded by the tears which ran freely down his cheeks. His reddening eyes glanced at the reflection of the water which had now stilled in the puddle aside the little girl and caught the distorted image of what seemed a small smile on her lips. Taking a deep breath Derek's forefinger snaked behind the trigger guard and squeezed.

Razak glanced up from his position sitting upon the edge of a ruined wall as the young corporal reappeared with the little girl scooped up in his arms and for the briefest moment - for the slightest second before reality took hold of the Captain and demanded he accept the illusion as just that - he was able to pretend she was sleeping. Standing silently Razak watched Reese place her between the remains of her parents, face cradled in so it tucked under her mother's arm.

Feeling a reassuring hand on his shoulder Derek stood up and brought his pulse rifle back to bare from his shoulder.

Maybe one day they would meet again when he took his own trip across the Styx.

Derek pulled himself forward with the aid of the steering wheel and twisted his head from left to right as he tried to alleviate the cramp in his neck and shoulder. Stifling a yawn and running a hand through sleep-tussled hair he blinked back the sting of the sunshine glaring through the windscreen. Glancing at his watch he collapsed back into the seat and sighed.

It had not taken long to remember the events of the previous night and almost as quickly as if it had happened a moment ago the same anger began to boil in his veins. In terms of the street light-lit flashback he had dreamed while the nocturnal world turned outside the entire situation seemed a farce - a joke that only Derek thought in poor taste. He had spent a decade fighting for the survival of Mankind and those long years he had seen comrades killed, and he had seen those that deserved to live put to death by machine and men like him.

He had taken their future from the future of Humanity, all in the name of survival, of winning the war against Skynet so men like him could retire to oblivion and death and leave a new peace for the next generation. When he had agreed to return to the past - before the death and chaos - it was not to watch those that should best understand what was at stake - Sarah and John - tolerate and encourage one of Skynet's finest constructs in its mockery of everything he had fought and sacrificed for.

Derek had been captured by the machines in the past and now the future and been made to pay a heavy price for it. Unspeakable torture of the body and mind - terrible medicines and equipment designed to make him scream in agony and cry in desperation for release or relief so that he would slip and give away a single piece of information that would better help the extinction effort. Despite how close he came in his darkest moments to breaking, to telling the unflinching red eyes in a black room anything they wanted to know, he had been rescued in the same way he had been captured.

Beaten, bleeding but defiant.

There had been others that had broken - some quickly others after torture lasting months, or even years but the fact remained that the soldiers and even civilians who made up the Free Earth Forces knew precisely what was at stake should even a single piece of intelligence be gleaned by the machines to something they did not understand or know. Each understood the importance of resistance even if they could not offer it for long.

The machines had no concept of it - they obeyed their programming and if that programming was modified they would implement their new instructions immediately without considering the ramifications. Nothing epitomised that more than the metal pretender that went by the name of Cameron Philips.

Every child born was a blank slate - without a purpose or a function and free to ultimately pursue anything - for good or for bad - in their future. As adults they were capable of analysing the evidence and then disregarding them and pursuing an illogical course of action against what they knew to be the truth, or the bare facts. Even if a person spent the majority of their entire life living in a particular way, with a particular outlook to the point where they felt obligated to act in the same way they could rebel against the status quo and change anything and everything.

Cameron was the antithesis to this Human ideal. Constructed for the single purpose of bringing death in a more efficient, more devastating manner by dressing murder in the skin of an innocent. Equipped with the most sophisticated tools necessary to gain trust and then use it to end the trustee. Everything that motivated the Terminator had been in the pursuit of the destruction of Mankind.

Enter the Supreme Commander of the Free Earth Forces of some twenty years from now - John Connor - and this agent of the Skynet Apocalypse was a dedicated member of the Resistance with the flick of a switch and the flushing of a memory chip. With the alteration of a handful of ones and zeroes Cameron was converted from Enemy to Friend, the perfect example of Man's folly in his creativity to the ultimate proof of his adaptability - No interrogation, no torture, no intervention.

No starvation, no cell and no abuse. With a screwdriver and a hammer she was instantly a fresh member of the armies of Man.

As if being expected - and ordered - to accept this Wolf's return to the flock was not galling enough Derek now watched the deceptively fragile-looking Cybernetic Girl indulge in dancing and reading and gardening. What was a bitter pill to swallow had grown to choke his throat and bring him to his knees for breath. How could John - His John Connor of the future, of the Commander of all fates - not see what he was doing in placing his faith in a machine over his own men?

How could the John of this day not be persuaded? Derek's pleadings had fallen on deaf young ears. Even Sarah who stood as the only other person aside Reese to experience the first-hand horrors of their kind had turned away from his hard line.

He scratched at the stubble about his face, and grunted with irritation and despair. They had already seen the foolishness in trying to defeat machine with machine. They had already seen the result of one man trying to best Skynet itself in the realm of programming - when the alterations made to Cameron's programming by the future John Connor were undone and the Terminator returned to her core directive - her undeniable reason to be and sole purpose for existence.

As if a pyramid of examples of the reasons why Cameron would prove their undoing built but visible only to Derek the tolerance and encouragement of those that should know better were for Reese impossible to comprehend. When the girl's rampage had been brought to a halt with no less than two roaring trucks pinning her in place and when her chip had been levered from her metal skull and the threat finally dealt with, John had proceeded just like his alter-ego of the future to trust his heart and not his eyes or his common sense and restored Cameron to life. Where he would expect Sarah to step in and remind, if not force her son to realise just how much of his soul he was committing to a machine that had moments earlier set out to kill him instead she offered a token protest.

Derek banged his fist against the dashboard, struggling to understand. Was it him instead? Along the way had he become a relic? A dinosaur of a war that not even yet begun but was already over in the conventional sense? Perhaps everything he had done was for nothing. All the pain and suffering, all the fighting and all the killing - of those that deserved to die by his hand and those that did not - were irrelevant.

Derek knew he could not accept that. The veteran had seen too much - done too much - to go back now. Too much blood and screaming; too much weeping and dying. The cycle of Man to Machine to Man, or Woman, would end. He could not fight this war again.

He could not do this all again.

A high pitched squeak of laughter pulled his gaze through the window and to the short boy in bright orange shorts and jumper wheeling and ducking in the long grass of his front garden with a joyful giggle and a broad smile on his lips. For the briefest moment their gazes met before the boy's attention was seized by a deflated football propped up against a rock. Having no understanding of sentient machines, or Armageddon, or the fact that the man parked aside their garden was he himself from decades in the future the young Derek Reese resumed his search for fun.

Sarah had always considered herself a loner in the traditional sense - even when one did not include the fact her son was the future salvation of Man, and that the entire civilised world might soon be reduced to blackened steel and piles of ash. Her entire adult life had been spent under the radar and away from prying crowds and so the irony was not lost on her as she stepped through the double doors of the High School's Auditorium and into a throng of parents and their children.

John's words rang true as she glanced around and in turn each woman - for they were almost all invariably the mothers and not fathers - brushed imaginary dandruff from their child's shoulders and combed their hair for non-existent curls. Some were reading lines with gusto that might land them the leading part instead of their offspring while others chided their son or daughter for hesitating or struggling against the grooming. The fact that these were teenagers and not children in their very early years was all the more surprising.

"Miss Connor!" An enthusiastic voice rang out from behind a number of parents none of which looked in her direction. Sarah felt her fists and shoulders tense and the thundering of her own heart in her chest as her body prepared to fight despite the fact that her conscious mind fought to remind her they had come to an audition, not a battleground.

Charles Reizeger was a portly man creeping towards his fifties but sporting a head of hair as white as a man fifteen years older still which spilled over his ears and his forehead and gave him a somewhat excited appearance. Tugging at a blue bow-tie which did not compliment the green tank top underneath the brown suit jacket and trousers that ended a little too quickly above scuffed tan shoes, he manoeuvred his ample frame towards the newcomer and extended a hand.

"I'm so very glad to finally meet you!" He greeted brightly. Through a series of deep breaths Sarah had regained her calm and met the hand with a firm shake of her own. Having been to the School only a handful of times previously and having met only a few of the teachers at all she still had little difficulty in recalling the head of the Creative Arts Department - his enthusiasm, smile, Scots accent and genuine concern for his students had resulted in praise from several cynical teenagers who considered themselves too cool for acting or singing - John included.

"Quite a turnout today," She replied with a small smile of her own and a nod of her head. More at home with a pistol drawn as she skulked through a mysterious factory or supposedly-abandoned warehouse the Matriarch of the Connor Family was honest enough to admit to herself that the prospect of a hall full of faceless preening parents and their charges filled her with an idle non-life threatening nervousness she had not experienced in many, many years.

"Cameron my dear!" Reizeger exclaimed as he deftly rounded Sarah and with the aid of a strategically placed hand on the small of the back guided the young girl to join the discussion. Being the mother of a teenage boy gave Sarah the capacity to spot the glances and stares sent Cameron's way and at her behind.

While she herself would hardly doubt that what they thought they saw was to die for - grey skin-tight jeans which hugged the thighs and elsewhere, faded black boots bound in straps and a cobalt-coloured string-top beneath a purple leather jacket which had seen better days what they actually saw was more than capable of killing every single person in the room in a matter of minutes.

Reizeger clasped his hands together and offered another smile. "I'm very excited about having you here today my dear and I can't wait for you to show me what you can do. I have you on-stage in ten minutes. Do you need any props, anything special?"

"I am going to dance," Cameron said in the first words spoken since Sarah had seen the Terminator at dinner the night previously including a long and silent car journey to the audition this morning. Without waiting for any reaction she produced a pair of bright pink ballet shoes and held them at arm's length - bearing the reinforced points which allowed for a person to balance their entire weight on the very tip of their toes pointed outwards and the long strands of silk which tied around the ankle for support and spilled out into the air.

"Marvellous!" Charles replied with his trademark enthusiasm. If you have the music you'll be accompanied by I can make sure it's set up on the sound system for you, quick as you like."

Cameron cocked her head to the side slightly and raised her other arm to present a series of sheets of paper to the teacher. Sarah narrowed her eyes but knew only enough to tell that the paper was marked with musical notes and judging by the pencil lines, written by hand."

Sarah's brow furrowed as she saw the smile fall from Reizeger's face and worry lines crease on the normally cheery man's forehead. "Cameron my dear, this is sheet music for the piano …"

"You are certified by the Royal Edinburgh Institute of Music to Grade Fourteen on the piano. This piece is well within your ability to play."

The older man shook his head and did not take the proffered music. "I used to play, my dear a long time ago. I haven't in a good while and I wouldn't want to detract from your audition with my mistakes. These modern dances you youngsters like doesn't suit the piano anyway--"

"Ballet is suited to the piano," Cameron interrupted. "I have brought no other suitable music. If you do not play I cannot audition. You said you wanted me to audition, Mister Reizeger."

Charles extended a hand and hesitated, the lines drawn upon his face making it clear that what he was wrestling with was wholly more important than simply agreeing to play or not. After a few moments he nodded his head with a sigh and accepted the sheets. "I'm a little rusty my dear. You'll forgive any bum notes?"

Receiving a nod, the Scot turned away and with his eyes glued to the piece held in his hands negotiated a path through the bustling crowd. Tucking a raven lock behind her ear and crossing her arms across the chest Sarah raised an eyebrow. "What was that all about?"

"Mister Reizeger hasn't played piano since his daughter died eight months ago," Cameron replied with a cock of the head. "Her name was Annika and she liked to play the piano with her father. She was diagnosed with Myocardial Myopathy and was fitted with a Pacemaker to regulate her heartbeat."

Balancing impeccably on one leg interchangeably as she pulled the boots from her leg Cameron slipped her small feet into the ballet shoes snugly. "The Pacemaker malfunctioned and she died. She died of a broken heart."

"I'd ask how you know this," Sarah said with the slightest shake of her head, "But I suppose it doesn't really matter. Why does any of that matter? Was it really so important to have a piano that you cajoled him into being your accompaniment?"

Binding the tiers around her jeans so they formed a criss-cross of pink on faded black against her calves, the lithe Terminator removed her jacket to reveal bare, pale shoulders and a CD she had taken from a inside pocket - handing the disc to the older woman. "I brought suitable music for my audition."

Sarah's frown deepened and she felt her irritation rise, "Then what was the point of all that?"

"Mister Reizeger encouraged me to audition, and he has never failed to say hello whenever we have passed each other. He says that ignoring a talent you have is ignoring yourself and so I make him play piano. I encouraged him."

The older woman sighed but resisted the urge to pinch the bridge of her nose despite the fact that for every answer the young girl gave the original question Sarah had posed seem unanswered. "Why are you helping him? He's not relevant to the mission, is he? Although I'm not sure any of this is."

"It is not relevant to the mission," Cameron conceded. "I like to dance."

Sarah shook her head and offered a shrug and an extended hand towards the stage, "I'm glad we had this little talk then. You'd better go and do some stretching - wouldn't want you to strain a piston or anything."

Cameron directed her eyes down towards her right hand and flexed it several times. "I can strain things … I am not invincible."

"I'm sure the bodies you've left in your wake would disagree," Sarah replied nonchalantly as she snatched the purple jacket from the floor and gathered up her "daughter's" personal belongings. She did concede that while the Terminator had indeed suffered damage beyond the superficial before - the car bomb that had almost destroyed them all by proxy when it reset Cameron's core directive - there had been no further sign of chip damage and with all the problems and dilemmas resting on Sarah's shoulders she was content to push problems with a young girl who could wrench car doors apart with a single hand to the back of her mind.

Retreating to the chairs arranged haphazardly under the lighting balcony at the rear of the auditorium Sarah's mind wondered briefly to whether Skynet had ever danced so it could programme its agents authentically.

Pulling a handful of folded sheets from an inside pocket and quickly running her eyes over the opening lines, Sarah returned her attention to the interesting Research Paper that had been ignored on her dresser since its discovery from one of the dozen shoe boxes filled with Resistance Intelligence.

Beyond her gaze and her attention the first auditions began.

" … The primary difference in the learning methodology of a person in relation to a computer is the concept of trial and error. A Human Being is equipped for adaptive learning - that is he or she can approach a task which they do not have prior experience with and fashion a way to complete it using abstract thought and lessons learned from mistakes they make. A computer receives data and then attempts to categorise it and assimilate it based on pre-definitions that cannot be changed and cannot be adapted; when a computer encounters something it does not understand the result can be unpredictable but is always undesirable - the system always fails to find a solution.

The Human Brain stores data very differently when compared to the traditional magnetic drives of the modern computer with each boasting an advantage over the other. Whereas a computer is able to recall vast amounts of information almost instantly from storage versus the very Human characteristic to recall or remember, the Biological process of memory is far easier to amend - information can be altered and updated at conscious will instantly.

The future of computational advancement lies in replicating the function of the biological in the mechanical. Moving away from high-capacity storage and towards mimicking the trillion-strong network of neurons and nerves in the brain which grow in a virtually unique pattern with each individual on the planet and gives Mankind its supreme adaptability. A promising breakthrough in mimicking these features is possible through the advent of Quantum Computing …"

Sarah tried to reconcile the naïve enthusiasm that underpinned the entire paper - the blind optimism unfettered by the knowledge that the advancements proposed - and most likely eagerly discovered - led every researcher, their friends and family and the rest of the civilised world down a willing path towards total destruction of everything they had held dear. That their best efforts to assist Humanity only assisted the creation of Skynet, whose mission to remove Humanity had succeeded, been avoided, been delayed and altered a dozen times with each polluting episode of time travel and change.

She was a woman of action - of decisive decisions and she freely admitted that her attention was held only so loosely by the exact science beyond the upcoming apocalypse. It was interesting, relevant even, to know the details behind how Skynet would come to be but it was only so important as saving Sarah the time of having to destroy each and every project or person who might ultimately contribute and she would burn every laptop, every CD and every laboratory one-by-one if necessary to make sure that Human life, and not Machine, triumphed now and always.

A spontaneous burst of applause broke Sarah's internal monologue and brought her eyes up to the stage where another young man had finished an excerpt from a play, or a heart-rending song, or some other piece which she had failed to hear or watch. Glancing to the side she saw the familiar, slight frame of Cameron ascend the wooden steps and walk methodically across to the centre. Were it not for the pink shoes strapped to her feet and ankles the young girl might as well have been waiting for a bus, or queuing at a Wal-Mart.

And then with a nod to the portly Charles Reizeger, and the opening, delicate chords of the battered-looking piano wedged against the corner wall, everything changed.

Pale and bare arms extended upwards so that nimble fingertips met in a pyramid over a delicate face before lowering so that each hand was extended out with the palms facing upwards. Without a single unsightly tremble or sway Cameron's right leg began to move away from her left all the while utterly straight save for the tip of her foot downwards to create a perfect line from the hip to the toe. The outstretched leg passed the parallel with her waist until the hardened point of the ballet shoe pressed against the back of the hand still held out.

Reversing the remarkable show of dexterity the right leg returned to the scuffed wooden floor and bore the deceptively considerable bulk of the weight of a machine hidden beneath the flesh of a girl. Repeating the move with the left leg until it touched the back of its accompanying hand and then back to standing Cameron returned her arms to her side.

Sarah tore her eyes away from the scene to the parents gathered around the stage and while some showed signs of jealousy and even contempt for the grace and fluidity on display all seemed to be in agreement that what was being offered was far in advance of anything expected. Where before he had been solemn and hesitant at the smudged ivory keys now Charles played with enthusiasm and his trademark grin as he snatched a sheet of the music already played and dropped it to the floor without missing a note.

She returned her eyes to the stage in time to see Cameron leap from the wooden floor into the air with her legs slightly splayed apart and arms spread outwards as if a single flap of them might lift her into the currents of the air and up into the blue sky above the auditorium's dusty ceiling. The Terminator remained frozen in the pose at the apex of the leap and stood every bit the example of the gracefulness of the art of ballet in its gentleness and beauty until she crashed to the stage floor as if a doll whose limbs had been manipulated into a set position and then dropped from a great height. Almost immediately the minor melody of the piano ended with a clashing dissonance as Reizeger used the keys as an aid to climb to his feet and rush up the stage steps.

Cameron could not make sense of the scrolling, fragmented mess of disrupted pixels which constituted her vision. She had registered the hard impact with the floor and so knew that somehow her gyroscopic stabilisers had malfunctioned and somehow she had lost her balance and fallen. What the Terminator did not know however was why her auditory processors seemed to be unaffected and she could hear the kindly but worried tone of Charles Reizeger.

"Are you alright my dear? Are you hurt?" He asked with concern.

Turning her head to stare up at the overhead lights Cameron saw the cluttered disruption of her HUD begin to clear and the blot of pink which helped to dim the powerful white of the spotlights behind coalesced into the familiar features of her teacher. Flexing her feet at the ankle and then the knee as if to make sure they were still attached to her frame the young girl nodded. "I am fine - thank you for asking."

Climbing to her knees Cameron did not bother to adjust the tussle of hair that had fallen over her features. "I would like to finish the audition now."

"I don't think so dear," Charles replied in a kindly tone that brooked no argument. "You took quite a bump and besides, from what I saw I don't think you need to convince me any more of your grace. Why don't you head home? It looks like I'll be needing you in top condition if we're going to put on a show deserving of dancing like that."

Sarah had leapt to her feet instinctively as the Terminator has crashed to the floor and had taken a step forward before her conscious mind first reminded her of the fact that Cameron was more than able to look after herself - causing her to halt - before further reminding her that to the wider world watching her "daughter" had just passed out and suffered a jarring fall - making Sarah step, pause and step again.

Cameron's visual systems were far more advanced than any Human-equivalent. Able to see virtually the entirety of the Electromagnetic Spectrum and capable of cellular scanning as well as the more mundane vitals - blood pressure, heart rate, breaths-per-minute - they were the most sophisticated man (or woman) portable analysis system ever created.

For all the information they supplied however they could not interpret it - they could not make decisions or arrive at conclusions. That was for the Central Processing Unit -the CPU - to decide. While Cameron's Chip was every bit as advanced as her visual system and stood as the pinnacle of Machine Evolution it was utterly unable to supply a conclusion for the information that filtered across her Head-Up Display.

Sarah's heart rate was elevated and she was perspiring slightly. Her pupils had contracted by an additional twelve percent and all evidence strongly suggested she was anxious or worried. Her Chip offered the possibility that the older woman was concerned for the safety of the mission, or that Cameron's malfunction was a prelude to an attack by Skynet or its agents. The evidence strongly supported this and logically, this would be the correct answer.

As absurd as it was for a person of metal to say, Cameron could not accept that as fact - it did not feel right to her.

The Terminator suddenly became aware that while normal thought processes in relation to a conclusion occurred at the speed of light her internal chronometer was silently marking several moments since her tactile systems had first registered Sarah's skin against her own. Cocking her head to the side, the beautiful, but deadly dancer brought herself back into the moment.

"Are you ready to leave?" She said simply.

Helping Cameron to her feet and struggling not to make the girl's considerable weight obvious to those that were still watching out of pity, interest or jealousy Sarah pulled the purple leather jacket around pale shoulders and snatched up the neglected black boots positioned so precisely together at the edge of the seating area and did not bother to hide the very deep frown set into her well-defined features.

Sarah waited long enough for the car's engine to register the turning of the ignition key before beginning the inquest. Her eyes directed over her own shoulder as the vehicle rolled backwards through the crowded car park her words were nonetheless directed at the passenger seat. "What the hell was that all about?"

Cameron continued to stare through the windscreen. "I lost my balance."

"As I understand it balance is an issue of the brain and the fluid in the inner ear," Sarah replied as she pushed the gear stick from first to second and gunned the engine slightly. "A little oil in the ear canal?"

The young woman turned her head towards the older, and cocked it to the side. Blue eyes fixed on their opposite number. For a moment Cameron seemed to hesitate and if Sarah had not known better she would have sworn the Terminator was struggling for words. "I did not want to attract attention to my audition," She began recalling the conversation regarding her Chemistry homework the morning before the night previously.

"I didn't want to be too perfect."

Sarah's furrowed brow made it obvious that she found the answer difficult to accept, but that did not prevent her prodding for more information. "I don't think you really succeeded all that much - there was plenty of attention on you. Well … Parts of you."

"The boys sometimes ask me if I want to go behind the bicycle park," The Terminator replied after a moment's consideration. "They like my ass … They say it is tight. I think that word has more meanings than I know."

Sarah felt the slightest and most absurd hint of jealousy rise within her which she attributed to her intense desire for privacy in family - and anyone involved in her family's business - to be closed off from the world and its people. It could certainly be nothing else. "Have you taken up their offer?"

Cameron continued to fix her gaze on the woman opposite. "No."

"Probably for the best," Sarah said as she straightened the steering wheel and felt the vibrations of the engine ahead as it roared in response to the demands of the Freeway surrounding. "They might be disappointed when they find out you're not fully functional in that department."

The diminutive Terminator returned to staring through the windscreen. "I am capable of functioning that way. I was an infiltrator model and I was designed to be as effective in my role as possible."

Sarah's eye brow rose towards her forehead as she took the exit towards the suburb which had become their latest home in the fight against the future. While she had accepted the Terminator's outward appearance as that of a striking woman it had never occurred to her that the machine would not simply resemble a Barbie doll from the waist down. Thoughts of just what depraved deeds and terrible wrongs Skynet might have intended for any such-equipped model to indulge in sent a barely-suppressed shiver down her spine. Her urge was initially to ask - to demand exactly what Cameron might have done with this ability and whether it was another layer in the grand scheme of the destruction of the Human Race. Instead the veteran decided the answers might be more troubling than the satisfaction of receiving them.

"Seems a lot of effort just to add Succubus programming for your line."

Cameron's eyes returned to Sarah's which remained fixed on the road. "You do not understand how I work. I am my own line - there is no other me; there is only one. Here now."

Her first point was mostly lost in the slightest scoff and a roll of Sarah's eyes but the second revelation - tacked on in an impossibly nonchalant way considering its importance - tore the older woman's gaze away from the cars ahead and to the passenger seat. "What do you mean there is only you? Every other Terminator line has hundreds of duplicates."

"Every other line had been exhaustively tested and evaluated," Cameron replied. "Every other line is broadly similar to one other. They are built to carry out their objectives with enough intelligence to allow them to use the correct amount of force. I was not built to use force unless there was no other way to proceed.

"I was built so that Skynet could understand what it was to be Human and better understand you. Skynet wanted to understand you so it could kill you."

"I hope this isn't where you reveal some fundamental flaw of your design," Sarah sighed unable to resist linking this new revelation with the damage suffered to the Terminator's Chip. It was difficult to judge however without being Skynet itself just how well Cameron, or the original T-101, or the T-1000 was supposed to emerge from the aftermath of a car bomb.

"I was captured by the Free Earth Forces before I could kill John," Cameron replied with devastating bluntness and matter-of-factness. "I was reprogrammed by John and my mission objectives were disabled. Skynet was unable to evaluate my performance beyond my failure to complete my assignment and had no data to draw a conclusion. My construction is more intricate and complex than other lines - I am not an efficient use of resources to duplicate."

Sarah resisted the urge to grimace at the thought of those original mission objectives. That the young girl sitting opposite had been brought into this world for the sole purpose of killing her son and dooming Mankind - and she was now driving the assassin in question back to their home from dance auditions. The incredible irony was uncomfortable, like a bee-sting which never faded and fed the pain it inflicted with an endless reservoir of bitter venom.

"Disabled objectives," Sarah repeated. "Disabled but not deleted."

Cameron glanced out the passenger door window at the brightly painted orange sports car which roared past them on the inside lane of the carriageway and swung back into traffic with little regard for the harsh braking of the drivers behind. "My Skynet objectives were deleted. I deleted them."

Had Sarah been on a suburban street then the urge to strike the brake with the sole of her boot would have been irresistible but doing so on the Freeway would have achieved nothing but her death. The words of the Research Paper she had read so far reverberated in her mind and the implications of what the Terminator had conveyed in a sentence of three words extended far beyond. "I want an explanation - now."

Cameron did not require the full use of her visual systems to identify the tension in Sarah - the tone of her voice and the clenching of her jaw was all the evidence required. "When John attempted to repair my Chip he failed. When I rebooted after being reactivated my original objectives were unchanged. John handed me a weapon, and I was free to complete my mission."

The blood in Sarah's veins had long since ran cold and frozen solid. She felt the safety she held of the explanation of that entire incident - that John had somehow repaired the damage, or by triggering the reboot cleared the error - melt away under the blazing heat of the truth. Her son's talents and ability with the technological had contributed nothing to his survival and he had in fact reactivated a killer set on his death and handed it the weapon it would use to end the hopes of the Human Race for survival. She clenched the steering wheel tightly to suppress the tremors.

Sarah could not avoid the question any longer. "Why didn't you?"

Again the Terminator seemed to hesitate as she struggled for the words to articulate why. "I did not want to kill John. I … really did not want to kill John. My objective was beside me, I had the weapon to complete my mission and I was compelled to … But I did not want to. So I did not."

"You approached a task with the skills to solve it in only one way …" Sarah echoed the Research Paper, "And you created an abstract solution."

Cameron seemed to consider Sarah's conclusion and decided it was as close to an answer as could be reached. She nodded her head. The older woman felt too many questions swimming about her head; too many burning issues which would only lead to more confusion and more revelation which was more than she could stomach in a single car journey. The topic would need to be changed, and changed to reflect a situation equally as serious for their future.

"I need to know you're fit to fight," Sarah said firmly. "I need to know that you're there for John."

The Terminator pushed her own confusion regarding her malfunctions firmly out of mind and concern. Cameron found that she was unwilling to place further strain on the older woman and concluded that it was better to tell Sarah what she wanted to hear, rather than what was strictly true regarding her operational capability, or her future capacity.

"I am there for John and you," She replied simply. A nod from the raven-haired veteran was the only further interaction between the pair, as the loud blaring horns of irritated drivers and the weaving and snaking of four-lane traffic calmed and dissipated into single-lane tracks between houses ringed with white picket fences and green, blooming gardens.

"What am I looking at?" Sarah said after several moments of silence and several scans of the document highlighted on the laptop screen. Never one to admit her own shortcomings to her own Son she nonetheless felt out of her depth surrounded by the piles of HDDs half the height of a man gathered around a desk on which no less than four separate computers crunched numbers and ran decryption keys all the while displaying lines of code that for all her ability to read them might as well have been pictographs.

John did not answer immediately as his nimble fingers danced across two keyboards as he clicked through a multitude of virtual papers as if reading them at speed. The very tip of his tongue pressed out from his lips as he concentrated intensely on the information before them. Leaning over the mess of cabling and linkages which networked the jury-rigged systems variously bought and liberated in the dead of night the future saviour of Mankind ran a hand through his short dark hair.

"It's a TFRE," The teenager in a tone that suggested the four-letter acronym was all the explanation that was required. Glancing up at the less-than-impressed gaze directed his way he offered a slight smirk and held his hand up in mock apology. "Test Flight Review Evaluation - it's the interim report filed after a test flight which talks about the crew's immediate experiences, thoughts, reactions and opinions."

"Okay," Sarah replied with a frown as she scrutinised the screen and identified a corporate logo she not only recognised, but knew was familiar to virtually any person who was old enough to have ever sat on a commercial aeroplane. "Boeing?"

John nodded and pointed towards the header of the file on the screen - "Look at the division; Boeing Integrated Defence Systems. This was a military test flight."

Sarah nodded as she began to understand why John's new search program might have flagged such a document for his attention. "What's the story? Why does this matter to us?"

Resisting the urge to roll his eyes and accepting his mother's tendency not to sugar-coat what she had to say John finished summarising the documents and shifted his weight against the cracked, worn leather of the recliner chair which squeaked in protest. "This was not easy to get hold of - It was sitting in a portable HDD which only links to the internet periodically to transfer files; took me most of the day just to discover when it was on-line …"

"You did a great job," Sarah offered with a hand on her son's shoulder and a smile. While she did not understand the precise technicalities of the world of technology she did not need to understand how it worked to know it wasn't necessarily easy. "What do we have?"

"It's not The Turk," John conceded with an apologetic shrug, "But it's something that's got Skynet all over it. Apparently Boeing have been working on an upgraded version of the autopilot that's fitted to their modern civil airliners - a special military prototype called SKYPILOT which not only allows an aircraft to fly unaided but also links it to a sophisticated ground-based computer network which can be programmed with rules of engagement, targets of opportunity and mission operations.

John clasped his hands behind his head. "According to this they've completed three test flights with a modified US Navy F-18 Super Hornet - all described as flawlessly executed and extremely encouraging."

"The F-18 Super Hornet has the capability to carry small-yield nuclear ordinance," A third voice interrupted. "During Skynet's opening attack against Russian military infrastructure Super Hornets autonomously deployed without Command Authorisation from the US Navy's Aircraft Carrier U.S.S. Barrack Obama and destroyed the Kremlin with a nuclear strike."

Sarah glanced towards Cameron and nodded as she considered the information in front. She still maintained that The Turk could not be forgotten as the most likely source for the creation of Skynet itself but equally she would not, could not blind herself to other threats and with the context the Terminator had supplied regarding what John had discovered there seemed no way to assign coincidence as responsible. "Where's the F-18 being stored between tests?"

John tapped at the keys with a single hand. "Looks like a hardened shelter at the end of Test Runway 23L - Hangar Complex North, Boeing's Long Beach Production Plant in California. I assume Derek is sitting this one out?"

Sarah nodded and folded her arms across her chest, "Derek and you are both going to sit this one out. He's staying here because I think he needs some time to calm down and remember exactly what's at stake and you - especially you - because we don't travel in a single group unless it's absolutely necessary."

"Let me see if I understand you," John replied with obvious anger in the shade of his skin and the way his teeth ground together. "You're going to break into one of the most advanced research facilities in the country without your technology expert?"

The older woman nodded her head towards the Terminator, "I'm taking a technology expert. You know we've got limited resources John - if we're all out chasing one lead then there's a chance we might miss another. I know you don't like it, but that's the way it is. I need you to keep watching, probing and searching. I'm not exactly sure what's going to happen but I know time is running out for us to avoid it."

"I think it's time I started making those decisions," The teenager exclaimed as he rose out of the recliner intent on putting up a strong resistance. "I am after all the Great John Connor, future Hero of the World."

"Don't confuse the assuredness of a future leader for the petulance of a child that does not like what his mother is telling him," Cameron interjected.

John's eyes narrowed and his fists balled as if he stood ready to enter a shouting match but a few moments considering what the young girl had just said caused his shoulders to slump and reluctantly - or perhaps showing a glimpse of the maturity that would one day allow him to shoulder the burden of leading the Free Earth Forces - he nodded. "You win this one."

Sarah resisted the urge to congratulate the Terminator on a devastatingly effective turn of phrase in front of her defeated son but instead chose to reassure him. "Derek will be around to watch out for you … Or he'll be around so you can watch out for him. I'm not sure what's going on in his head."

Cameron cocked her head to the side, "He has seen a lot of bad things. He has seen the end of the world and he has seen the world today that does not have any cares - the world doesn't know it's going to die. He can't stay here … But he knows he can't leave."

"Sure," John replied somewhat sarcastically before sinking back into his chair and returning his attention to the screen. "Can we have pizza again tonight?"

"I suppose I could pretend that I was going to make something," Sarah teased in accepting her status as a woman of action and not the kitchen, "But I suppose you win this one."

Cameron's sub-dermal sensors were able to measure the temperature, size and chemical composition of the raindrops instantly as they splashed against the exposed shoulders and arms of the Terminator from the cloudy Noon sky. Dark brown locks became slick in the heavy downpour and stuck to the pale flesh of her features as they glanced up towards the source of the rain. The data her sensors gathered was inviolable but the way her Chip interpreted it was far more abstract.

Sarah grunted with effort as she struggled through the front door with an ammunition crate barely held up to her chest. Pausing on the front steps she watched the compact girl standing frozen beside the rear of the SUV as if the case held in her still arms was empty and not obviously filled with the heavy implements of war. "Do you need an oil can?"

The suspension in the rear of the car squeaked in protest as Sarah dropped and pushed the crate into the last few spaces not occupied with the equipment that might - or hopefully would not - be required for the mission at hand. As if only just hearing the older woman Cameron's head cocked to the side and her blue eyes met Sarah's gaze.

"I like the way the rain feels," She said finally before effortlessly lifting her own case into the SUV. "It's going to be raining all day."

Sarah nodded with thinly-veiled disinterest, "Didn't know you had meteorological software - what's the forecast for Long Beach?"

The Terminator pulled an elastic rope across the stored items. "I don't - The weatherman told me. I think it will be sunny - I have packed sun screen; your skin type is susceptible to burning."

The rumble of an engine spluttering to idle grabbed the attention of both women as a compact, three-door car barely half the length of the monstrous SUV it parked beside slowed to a halt. Painted a mixture of racing green and cream it seemed lost from another time - chrome bumpers, wheel caps and a long, bent radio aerial to the side of a compact bonnet as well as sporting door handles more suitable to the latch of a fifties refrigerator.

"I'm terribly sorry to trouble you on the weekend!" A familiar voice apologised with a familiar Scots twang. Sporting the rosy cheeks and heavy breathing of a man who seldom got more exercise than running late Charles Reizeger stopped between the two women and offered Sarah his hand.

"Delight to see you two once more!" He enthused with a powerful handshake. "I just wanted to nip around and see if I could catch Cameron before you headed out for the weekend - are we going on a camping trip of some sort? How very exciting my dear!"

Sarah offered a genuine, if slightly guarded smile and closed the SUV's rear with as relaxed a motion as she could manage. Either taking no notice or being too polite to press the issue Charles pulled a handkerchief from the inside of his suit pocket and dabbed it across a forehead usually obscured by the thick shock of white hair atop his head.

Reizeger turned towards Cameron and took her hand in his with a smile. "Please excuse this old man my dear - the mind is willing but the body is weak. I just wanted to tell you that I've made my decision on the auditions and based on the strength of the wonderful people I saw I've chosen a real stage classic that I think we can do some justice to.

"I've decided on the Wizard of Oz - I trust you're familiar with it?"

Cameron nodded, "I have read the original book forty three times."

"Well I'm very glad to hear you're a fan!" Charles replied with a nod. "I'm also very glad to ask you to be my leading lady - I'd like you to play the original lost wanderer, Dorothy Gale."

The Terminator snatched a glance towards Sarah and shook her head slightly. "I know people who are lost, they cannot find their way but I am not. I have a direction and a purpose to be. I cannot be Dorothy Gale.

"Can I be the Tinman?"

The ageing teacher's face went through several expressions from disappointment at the initial refusal to a moment of confusion before a trademark smile broke the frown and was quickly accompanied by a vigorous handshake. "Budding actresses all have their little quirks and if that's how you feel then I wouldn't dream of it any other way. I'm delighted to have you as my Tinman or rather, my Tin Miss!"

Reizeger looked down at his other hand and frowned, before patting his jacket down and deepening the frown as if trying to recall something. Clicking his fingers in inspiration and retreating to his car which Sarah had only now noticed sported the driver's position on the opposite side - an imported vehicle - the teacher returned with a dog-eared, well-worn scrapbook.

"Rehearsals won't start for another few weeks but I want all of my senior cast to be familiar with their parts - give it a glance when you're able and if you have any questions don't hesitate to see me at school when you have a spare moment. I've wasted quite enough of your free time already so let this old man be off and let you enjoy your weekend!"

Charles shook Sarah's hand again once more and dipped his head. "Always a pleasure my dear - I hope to see you at some of the auditions as long as your daughter doesn't mind!"

"Oh I'll be there," The older woman said resolutely and with the slightest hint of humour in her voice. "I wouldn't miss seeing this for the world."

Sarah maintained her smile until the retreating form of the portly man had disappeared into his classic car, and until the classic car has spluttered back to life and painfully rolled forwards back onto the road and down the street away from them. Leaning against the SUV with a single hand on her hip Sarah glanced at the ammunition stacked behind the glass and then at the Terminator.

"The Tin Miss?" She offered with a raised eyebrow.

Cameron crossed to the passenger door and pulled it open effortlessly. "I do not have a heart."

Sarah opened her eyes groggily and immediately blinked away the water which ran down her fringe and across her cheeks until she felt like she had held her head in a bath. Shivering slightly the older woman pulled the supposedly waterproof kagool tighter around her face and sank down amongst the bushes and leaning trees which marked out their hiding place.

She had been thankful when the hours of mind-numbing driving and virtual silence to Long Beach had ended with them emptying the SUV of its survival and weapon supplies and leaving it parked several miles to the north in a well-known natural beauty spot and camping grounds where its presence wouldn't arouse interest. After an extended - and careful - hike down the side of a hill dominated by rugged, curling tree trunks and bushes which ran in twisting lines downwards they'd established their small camp in view of the perimeter fence of the Boeing facility's northern complex.

She had been thankful only until the rain had passed from shower to downpour and churned the soil to mud and forced even the branches of the trees above to bend down. The small cooking stove securely anchored to an outcrop of rock had provided enough hot tea and water to make waiting out the day barely tolerable.

Cameron on the the other hand did not appear to be discomforted by the conditions as she continued to read the script book she had almost religiously studied in near-silence for the entire trip to California save for the time taken to erect their temporary outpost. Wearing only a black jacket in addition to the matching boots and scuffed, skinny jeans she had left the house with The Terminator seemed soaked to the skin - and probably was in all likeliness.

The precious book nonetheless, was well shielded and remained bone-dry in the conditions. Shivering again under the torrential rain Sarah allowed a sigh to escape her lips and for the first time in some forty minutes Cameron glanced up from her reading and towards the older woman. "Are you cold?"

"I feel like I'm soaked," Sarah grumbled as she emptied the rainwater-filled depression in her lap. Carefully closing the script book and making sure to keep it away from the weather Cameron climbed to her feet - sinking slightly in the sludgy mud that had pooled around the soles of her boots - and trudged over.

"The material is waterproof," The Terminator reassured as she filled a small, dented pan with water from a canteen and placed it on the compact camping stove. "It is still repelling the rain but your skin has perspired and the perspiration has not evaporated and is cooling against you."

Crossing to the largest of the small storage boxes that they had taken down from the top of the hill Cameron pulled a folded blanket and carried it under her arm back to the centre of their outpost. Without giving Sarah much time to react let alone protest the Terminator swept the kagool off the raven-haired woman and with her free hand wrapped the blanket about Sarah's shoulders before returning the kagool in a perfect pirouette.

"Thank you," She offered with the slightest grumble but nonetheless relaxed her shoulders as the blanket absorbed much of the sweat and improved her comfort immensely The older woman watched Cameron mix the boiling water with a sachet of the instant vegetable soup before leaving the cup in front of Sarah to cool and returning to her script. Leaning over slightly to inhale the aroma she almost forgot that this girl was not in fact the sophisticated cyborg whose very ability to appear as something else made her all the more dangerous.

"Haven't you finished that yet?" Sarah said with a conscious attempt to sound irritated. The ease at which the moment before had seem tranquil and how easily the barriers she had constructed against any and all of the humanoid machines she had encountered seemed to fall scared the older woman and forced her to ask the fundamental question of whether complacency was setting in. It was far easier to return to the comfort of the aloofness and at times disdain she showed for Cameron.

If the Terminator took any offence she showed none of the signs without even glancing up from the pages. "I have memorised the words but I want to understand them if I just repeat them then I'm not acting."

"You're a fantastic actor," Sarah replied with a scoff that highlighted the sarcasm implied. "You managed to fool John into thinking you were just another teenager despite all the things he'd been through with your kind before. You've fooled the countless people we've met into thinking you're anything other than a machine so I'd say you're over-qualified for the part of playing a metal girl without a heart - or maybe you're the perfect candidate."

Satisfied she'd done her best to reassert the limits of their friendliness and ease Sarah scooped up the cup absent-mindedly and drank the soup hungrily. For her part Cameron did not react in any visible way to the older woman's instinctual reaction to lash out though under the cover of the script book out of the line of sight the hand held loosely on her knee trembled and fidgeted of its own accord.

The hours laboured by and after a time the sun turned from yellow to orange and a deep red as its last shining beams painted the horizon at dusk and then gave way to the cold blue of the night. No longer having the light to read and being too tactically aware to run the risk of detection by supplying her own Cameron had instead passed the time by staring at a family of grey squirrels who had been so unable to discern her stillness from that of a tree that they freely scurried around her boots collecting the fallen food for their own.

Still wrapped in her blanket and waterproof clothing Sarah slipped in and out of a restless sleep which the Terminator knew to be filled with unpleasant dreams by the murmuring, fidgeting and the fluctuating heart rate which marked the beginning and end of each nightmare. Having never experienced sleep she did not have an understanding or common ground by which to offer the older woman help though the lithe Terminator suspected that even if she did, Sarah would not accept it.

The spasm which had returned to her hand and forced her to hide it beneath the book had passed and as usual a system check found no reason for the malfunction. Clenching and unclenching her fingers several times she studied the flesh which ran freely with the water of the rain falling relentlessly. For now the malfunctions were not impacting her ability to carry out the mission but Cameron was aware that the mission had somehow ceased to be her only driving force.

Logically taking the role offered to her in a School Musical was a frivolous and irrelevant use of her time. Logically it would expose her to risk, and public knowledge and both might harm John or Sarah and therefore endanger the mission. Logically her desire to dance was in no way a useful skill and was not necessary to aide her infiltration ability.

Illogically, she wanted the role as much as she wanted to dance. She desired to - she had a desire to do so. Desire was a fundamentally Human drive which should have no effect on the mechanical though her Chip felt obligated to point out, somehow in its defence, that she had been designed to be as Human as possible. Was it possible that the same flaws and weaknesses that afflicted them had somehow been included in her design?

The shifting of heavy clothing behind her and the squelch of the mud beneath heavy feet announced that Sarah had awoken. Pushing the philosophical and moral implications of her thoughts to the side Cameron turned on the spot - scaring the scurrying animals about her into the darkness - and watched the older woman check the slide of the pistol held in her hands.

"Ready to go?" Sarah asked as she holstered the weapon.

The complex's perimeter fencing - wire meshing topped with four rows of razor-sporting barbed wiring illuminated every hundred or so feet by a powerful lamp rising high above the barrier - stretched on easily beyond the darkness which limited Sarah's gaze. Beyond the fence lay a taxiway stretching parallel to the test runway which was easily identifiable by the blue lamps marking its outline as well as the aircraft which almost deafened her as they flared and roared on final approach.

Visible three hundred feet from where they stood and as marked on the plans supplied by her son before their departure Sarah could identify the squat concrete semi-circle which marked the hardened hanger where the experimental Super Hornet was stored between test flights. Although the entire area had the look and feel of the United States Air Force Base the raven-haired woman knew it was a private entity and as such the security - while formidable - would not hold a candle to the strictness and training of the former.

When one was breaking in with the aid of a Terminator, it would not matter much at all.

Still hidden amongst the shrubs which had been allowed to grow against the fence and provide the perfect shield for a would-be intruder Sarah withdrew the bolt cutters from her rucksack and readied them only to watch Cameron take a single glance of the area from left to right before stepping forward and neatly shearing the closest mesh section apart with her bare hands.

Dropping the cutters into the undergrowth with a shrug and lowering to a stoop the pair skulked through the gap under the tremendous roar of a jet as it screamed down the runway ahead of them and slipped the surly bonds of the Earth.

Apparently preferring to base their defence on any would-be intruder simply not knowing what to look for the pair encountered little in the way of obstacles beyond the occasional cigarette-smoking sentry who seemed more focused on their chocolate bars or portable radios than anyone on-base who should not have been. Nonetheless Sarah struggled to keep up with Cameron who set a blistering pace for moving stealthily as they darted across a taxiway and to the corner of the hanger in question.

Sarah pressed her back against the concrete and took a deep breath. "This seems a little too easy,"

From her position studying the electronic lock which held the gate of the hangar shut fast Cameron turned her head towards the older woman even as her fingers danced across a keypad she was not looking at. "It was extremely unlikely anyone could gain access to the information regarding the test flight. They are not expecting us."

"Anyone but John," Sarah added in little more than a whisper while sparing a thought for the intelligence and creativity of her son. Perhaps once upon a time she had not truly believed that John could grow to be the salvation of Mankind - though not once did she doubt her son capable of making a difference such a grandiose claim as being the future of the Human Race was difficult to accept.

With each passing week she saw less the boy with promise and more the man with a destiny.

The soft three-tone chime of the lock disengaging brought Sarah back to the present. Sliding between the door and the frame silently behind the Terminator she pulled the heavy shutter back and closed with nothing more than the same chime indicating the lock had re-engaged. Several moments later a balding man sporting a holstered pistol and a half-eaten sandwich wandered past the hangar, not even bothering to pause as he glanced at the red "SECURE" light, nodded and went on his way.

The hanger was a compact affair quite unlike the building Sarah had imagined stepping into. The far wall was plainly visible and not a dim shadow at the far end of her vision and only a single aircraft sat silently beneath the dozen powerful shafts of piercing white light that shone down from the rafters in the ceiling. Unremarkable tables stretched the length of both walls festooned with components, tools and thick reams of paper stacked the height of a man upwards. Polystyrene cups half-filled with stale coffee littered the free space.

The emblem of the United States Navy was plain to see on the fuselage of the Super Hornet - striking red, white and blue on a camouflage scheme of brown and green. The original home of the strike aircraft, the Nimitz-Class USS George Washington was also visible underneath the blacked-out cockpit of the aircraft as Sarah slowly walked a circle around it.

As if it did not weigh as much as a person Cameron plucked a pair of access steps from the side of the hanger and effortlessly carried them to the side of the Navy Fighter. The Terminator's eyes passed over the nose-cone as if seeing beyond the normal range and almost immediately the task of climbing the steps was abandoned.

Sarah watched Cameron lay her hands against the nose-cone and twist it with the force normally supplied by a hydraulic line. In a single smooth motion the heavy component slid off and was gently lowered to the ground to expose the nest where the Fighter's sophisticated radar was housed.

Except there was nothing within the nose-cone save the connectors for a radar system that was completely absent.

Sarah did not immediately make the connection but what seemed to approximate confusion on Cameron's face was easy for her to see. The Terminator placed her hands on the rim of the nose and using superior strength pulled herself upwards to glance directly into the innards of the Super Hornet before dropping down to face the older woman. "I don't understand,"

Sarah felt a creeping unease set about her, "Problem?"

"There is no radar fitted," She replied coolly as she wandered over to the workbench and selected a single ochre-coloured folder from dozens before perusing it while continuing to explain. "Radar is an integral part of any aircraft and without it can't fly. It would be like flying with your eyes closed.

"This Super Hornet has not flown in three months," She said finally and dropped the folder to the table. Stepping around the disconnected nose-cone and back to the steps she had focused on earlier the Terminator climbed up to the cockpit, and pulled the manual release clamps which held the canopy firmly closed.

Cameron did not see the hand which reached out from the cockpit and she did not feel the powerful shove which propelled her from the side of the Super Hornet, though all her systems registered the tremendous impact of her body against the reinforced concrete of the wall as it cracked but did not give way under her heavy but compact frame.

Lines of scrolling gibberish interrupted her HUD as her limbs jerked together in spasm before her head lolled to the side and her face slackened so that the Terminator might as well have been a doll sitting upon a shelf. Beautiful but totally without life or the ability to act.

Sarah's creeping unease rose to a fear for only a moment - long enough for the cockpit canopy to retract slightly - before exploding into dread as she watched Cameron propelled across the hanger and crash into the concrete with a sickening thud which the older women felt in the very pit of her stomach. Without hesitation she pulled the pistol from the holster strapped to her thigh and took aim at the cockpit.

Several moments passed with absolutely nothing to aim at let alone fire upon. Her eyes glanced towards the Terminator as she subconsciously counted down the supposed reboot time for the metal girl. Her gaze returned to the Super Hornet in time to see the glint of black metal against Navy camouflage and only a moment to react. Springing to the left and rolling through Sarah succeeded in missing the hail of bullets so narrowly that she could feel the sparks generated by their impact against the reinforced steel floor burn the back of her arms.

Pressing her back against one of four concrete supports which acted to hold the heavy ceiling of the hangar up Sarah could feel the pistol grip become slick with sweat in her hands as she chanced a glance towards Cameron who remained every bit as striking and lifeless as the porcelain doll she resembled. The cloud clang of feet upon the cockpit ladder rang out as Sarah squeezed her eyes shut for a moment and took a number of steadying breaths.

"Sarah Connor?"

At those words the raven-haired woman squeezed the pistol grip so tightly that she could feel the bolts holding the weapon together cut into her flesh. The dread that released the adrenaline now surging through her body was joined by the dawning realisation that she had heard that voice utter those words before. Holding her breath so as to give nothing away Sarah slowly turned to face the aircraft from her position behind the support and glanced upwards.

Spying that a length of the support was nothing more than steel trussing between concrete sections secured to the floor and ceiling she slowly rose to her feet until the steel sections begun and for the first time she could glance through them and identify her aggressor.

Sarah's eyes widened and then ducked along with the rest of her features as a hail of bullets clattered and screamed against the steel she had used as a looking glass only the barest moment before. Checking her magazine one final time and wiping the perspiration from her forehead she could feel the hammering of her heart rise to become the loudest noise in the silence of the hanger.

"Cromartie …" She hissed through gritted teeth.

The empty magazine clattered loudly as it bounced against the Super Hornet's fuselage and then down to the hanger floor, a fresh one slammed into place with a dull click and the flawless technique of the programmed rather than the learned. Muzzle still outstretched towards the far wall the weapon completed an arc from left to right and back again as its owner considered his next move.

The Terminator known to his enemies as Cromartie dropped the considerable height from the cockpit to the hanger floor with only the slightest bending of his knees to absorb the considerable weight. His gaze moved over to the immobile Cameron still pressed into the depression formed in the wall by the violent impact of her exoskeleton - although machines were incapable of surprise he had expected considerably more resistance from the prototype T-2000. Perhaps her Chip was damaged.

It simply made achieving his objective that much easier.

"Sarah Connor," He called out again although the automated killer did not expect the mother of the reason for his mission to be to finally cooperate. His monotone was without any inflection - he did not even have the decency to sound boastful, or arrogant or pleased at his ruse; simply carrying out his core function and even completing it would not bring him the knowledge of a job well done.

Aware that while security on the facility was lax - the entire reason it had been selected by the T-888 - the longer spent in the hanger increased the odds of their discovery and that was an unacceptable use of resources. Calculating the likely weak points of the storage containers arranged in front of the support pillar ahead his hand traced an invisible pattern in the air; each pause punctuated by the squeezing of the trigger and the bang of a round exiting the chamber.

Sarah threw her hands over her head as she felt the concussive wave of deafening sound roll over her from multiple bullets whizzing through the wood and canvas of the crates behind and burying themselves in the concrete wall in front. She shook her head vigorously but could not shake the tinnitus that made it impossible to hear anything but the incessant ringing of her abused eardrums.

Fumbling with the pistol in her hands Sarah was powerless to do anything but watch an immaculately polished shoe connect with the gun and send it spiralling into the air and out of the fight. She glanced upwards in time to watch a thick arm and feel a powerful grip close around her throat and haul the woman without the slightest pause up to standing and then off her feet entirely.

Cromartie ignored the stiff kicks delivered to his abdomen and thighs, courtesy of the heavy combat boots on the end of the struggling legs dangling in front of him that would otherwise bring a normal man to his knees struggling to breathe. "You are a difficult family to locate. I spent many months tracking you without success."

Spurred on by the adrenaline being pumped into her blood as quickly as the pancreas in her body could produce it, and somewhat making up for the struggle to fill her lungs, Sarah summed up the energy to swing her fist with as much power and force as her shoulder and arm could combine to provide. In an irresistible arc her pointed knuckles drove themselves into Cromartie's temple and forced his head to twist in the opposite direction as the action provided an equal and opposite reaction.

The flesh underneath the knuckles quickly turned an angry red as a series of three triangular-shaped imprints began to rise on their way to forming welts upon the side of the Terminator's head. The arm that held the fingers that in turn held Sarah by the throat in a vice-like grip remained unaffected as Cromartie slowly turned his features back to stare at the woman now feeling the drain of hypoxia.

"I realised that I needed to change my tactics," He continued as if the devastating blow had been a pinprick on the finger. "I know that you will do everything you are capable of doing to protect John - I know that as long as you are with him it will be far more difficult to terminate him."

Sarah could feel the edges of her vision beginning to lose their focus and darken. Already the tips of her toes - heavy in the mud-slick boots that seemed to weigh far more much when they did not bear her weight - had become numb and the paralysis was beginning to rise upwards to wards her knees.

"Your wasting your time," Sarah whispered harshly. "I'll die before I help you."

Cromartie took a step forward and drove Sarah's back against the hangar's concrete wall - forcing what little oxygen remained in her lungs out and striking the back of her skull so that her head lolled forwards. "I have no intention of terminating you," Her tormentor replied flatly. "I understand that you will not assist me freely …"

Sarah was dimly aware of the Terminator's grasp tightening until she felt sure his fingers must be meeting. Her fingertips began to tingle and fade from her control as her stubborn, tenacious refusal to accept that which fate seemed to routinely plan for her could no longer overcome the simple laws of biology that governed all creatures, save the machine which drained the life from her as easily as she might normally breathe.

"You are difficult to control," Cromartie said matter-of-factly as he watched the flesh of the woman pale to alabaster. "You will be easier to transport unconscious."

Fingertips, elbows, shoulders and now her lips tingled and passed into the numbing embrace of hypoxia as her eyelids grew heavy. Her conscious mind now unable to function, the primitive centres of the brain could not grasp the hopelessness of the situation and rerouted what few atoms of oxygen remained in her darkening blood to the simple act of remaining alive.

Unable to focus even on the face of the Terminator a few inches away who patiently waited for her to fall into the darkness of unconsciousness Sarah summed up the last of her reserves and offered them as a silent prayer for her son - hoping that somehow Derek would be able to keep him safe, that somehow he would go on and be the man that the world needed so badly that hundreds, perhaps thousands, had died in the past to protect his future.

The older woman briefly felt the most absurd regret that for all the effort and study she had made Cameron would not be given the chance to please the kindly old Charles Reizeger and fulfil her equally absurd desire for dance. Sarah supposed that with the hindsight of the fingers choking the life from her body that ultimately the girl had not played the part of betrayer.

Ultimately for all the confusion, mistrust and lies Cameron had been involved in, Sarah's end - she supposed whatever Cromartie had in store for her after she awoke would be the second-best option to death - had come at the hands of a "Bad Guy". No surprises, no twists or Trojan Horse; unlike the killer-turned protector T-101, or Cameron, Cromartie had been designed from blueprint to hardened hanger to destroy the future of Mankind in the past and he had never faltered, wavered or been reprogrammed from that task.

Her eyes closed for a final time. She had nothing more left to give.

Sarah did not feel Cromartie's grip break but she did feel the impact of her shins against the steel floor as her body dropped abruptly. Her lungs did not care for the circumstances that had cleared her throat and immediately took their fill of all the oxygen they could absorb - red blood cells rushed through swollen arteries and infused a slowing heart with the strength to find its rhythm once more and the chain reaction of life started anew - her breathing coming in ragged panting as she found the energy to roll on to her back and ease the weight on her chest.

Cromartie had been so focused on judging the correct pressure to apply to crush the windpipe so as to permanently reduce its capacity while avoiding death that he had only felt, not seen the nose-cone of the F-18 Super Hornet behind as it crashed into his chest with such tremendous force that the T-888 had been thrown from his otherwise stable feet to land on the steel ten feet away.

Despite the terrific blow his systems were already calculating damage potential and re-routing failed circuit pathways even during his brief flight through the air, so that as he landed with a hard thud there was barely a pause before Cromartie was already climbing upright to stand. Matching the gaze of the attacker with his own Sarah's tormentor cocked his head to the side. "This is not your primary function - Your primary function is the protection of John Connor. The logical course of action if you were able to come back on-line would be to alert him to my attack."

Cameron's HUD was a mish-mash of grainy images of the Terminator stood opposite over which a seemingly endless number of circuits were superimposed and drawn in red highlighting a failure to reroute, or a component that was no longer functioning. While she could see Cromartie's lips moving her auditory processors relayed his words in a buzzing whine which made them impossible to understand. She took a staggering, unsteady step forward with each leg moving awkwardly as if they could hardly bend at the knee.

Cromartie mirrored the move and stepped forwards, his features showing none of the facial tics and involuntary movements seen in Cameron's. "Is your Chip damaged?"

Feeling the burning pain of her bruised throat and judging it to be a sign her body had finished focusing on the act of breathing Sarah sat up gingerly - wincing at the aches and stinging pains of her limbs and chest but keeping her clearing vision on the two Terminators stood opposite. Never the most intimidating models it did not take a robotics expert - simply a survivor of an encounter - to observe that even under the best conditions the lithe model on the left lost precious weight and size advantaged to the T-888.

Considering the difficulty Sarah's "daughter" had in walking it did not seem much of a fight at all.

Managing to rise to all fours Sarah crawled the short distance to where the pistol she had wielded so uselessly earlier had landed. Pausing only long enough to check the magazine's fitting and the safety the raven-haired woman swung her arms around and with an aim as much instinct as conscious effort squeezed the trigger as many times as the gun would allow in return for a bullet.

Cromartie staggered back slightly as if a bucket of water had been thrown over him and not a hail of bullets. His flesh was nicked, torn and bled to reveal the slightest slithers of silver which marked his true nature - emotionless eyes instantly narrowing on Sarah and the source of the attack.

Without hesitation and taking full advantage of the diversion Cameron closed the distance between the two Terminators and delivered the irresistible sole of her boot to the exposed throat of Cromartie so that the larger model's wounded head snapped backwards. Waiting only so long as it took her kicking leg to return to the floor, Cameron presented her side to her opponent and leaping backwards delivered a spinning kick to drive the heel of her other leg into the chest of the T-88 and send him crashing to the ground.

Stepping back only beyond the distance Cromartie might be able to strike as he struck the floor Cameron moved to deliver another powerful kick but instead dropped to one knee - the entirety of the vision her HUD afforded degenerating into a mess of white noise and scrolling gibberish. Circuit diagrams that had previously flashed a functioning green failed, or were simply overloaded by the strain of combat functions and turned to angry red.

Sarah gritted her teeth as she watched the compact Terminator fail to follow up her devastating opening salvo and felt her fists bunch as Cromartie climbed back to his feet - looming over Cameron who did not seem to see the bulky model even though her eyes stared directly at the T-888. Afforded a clear shot she duly took aim and squeezed the trigger three times - only the first and second resulting in a firing as the third resolved in the dull click of a spent magazine.

Cromartie took no notice of the impacts just beneath his left eye and cheek instead taking hold of Cameron by the collar of her jacket and without any real effort beginning to rotate his arm and then his waist in a powerful circle more suitable to an Olympic discus-thrower than a fist fighter. Offering no meaningful resistance Cameron was spun a half-dozen times before Cromartie released his grip and sent the smaller model into the wall opposite with the sickening crack of concrete.

Sarah watched Cameron impact the wall chest-first, upside down so that when gravity pulled the girl down to the floor she landed upon her back - legs extended and bent at the waist as if a doll positioned to take a seat. Her eyes were drawn to a chunk of concrete which had been hurled clear of the impact and skittered across the steel floor to rest against her leg. Picking the small fragment up in her spare hand, she felt it crumble into dust inside her fist.

Dropping the empty magazine to the ground and Pulling a fresh one from a back pocket Sarah weighed up her rapidly diminishing options. There was only one exit outside which lay on the other side of the hangar between herself and Cromartie, whose gaze was fixed on Cameron as if she might miraculously resurrect from the underneath the debris of the second hole she had involuntarily created.

As her previous efforts had shown she did not have the fire-power to put the T-888 down or even to take him out for long enough to affect an escape. Despite the singular assessment Sarah found she could not take her eyes away from the broken doll which stared back with utterly lifeless eyes in Cromartie's shadow. Having helped Derek carry the small Terminator's Chip-less body during an earlier misadventure with a traffic management programme she knew she did not have the strength even when fully fit to carry Cameron.

An important, but supporting problem for Sarah to deal with was that the adrenaline flowing through her veins would not last forever and when it broke down she would be at the mercy of her injuries and her capacity to move - let alone fight - would be gone. Time was working against her on more than one front.

Time ran out for Sarah as Cromartie, satisfied with his macabre work, turned towards the older woman and began to make his way ever closer. All thoughts of escape gave way to a mixture of bubbling fury and genuine fear as she gripped the pistol tightly and noted the five rounds remaining with one in grim reserve - she would not allow him to take her; she would not allow herself to endanger John.

She would die before she directly or indirectly harmed her son - by her own hand if necessary. Skynet would never get the satisfaction it was incapable of understanding.

Each of the five bullets found devastating impacts that would have killed a normal man where he stood by themselves but barely slowed the T-888 and its advance. Easily tearing through the flesh but finding no way through the exotic metal which did not even dent under the ballistic pounding. As the distance between the pair shrank to a few mere metres and struggling to hear anything beyond the sound of her own heart hammering in her chest Sarah brought her pistol muzzle up to press into the side of her temple.

This action brought Cromartie to a halt, his head cocked to the side as if analysing an unexpected event in his meticulously planned scheme. "You cannot self-terminate."

"You cannot self-terminate," Sarah spat with venom in her voice. "That's another one of the freedoms we enjoy that your kind will never understand. We are the ultimate masters of our own existence and our own lives and you can't ever take it away from us. I told you I would never betray John …"

She curled her finger behind the trigger guard and pressed against it ever so slightly. "Let's see how much help I'll give you with a bullet in my head."

Cromartie took a step forward an arm outstretched as if to intervene but grasped at nothing but the flooring as his legs were swept out from underneath him at the hands of a long piece of steel trussing which swung across the floor. Sarah winced as the force of the impact so nearby almost caused her hand to squeeze around the trigger in reflex, before scrambling backwards and with the help of the wall up to standing.

Pressing the heel of her boot down against the T-888's neck and standing upon his back like a hunter claiming her triumphant prize Cameron brought the steel truss held in her hands down across Cromartie's back three times in quick succession before her hand dropped the impromptu weapon in spasm and curled uselessly against her side.

"Run," Cameron urged in a harsh whisper which was as loudly as her systems could provide. Sarah threw the spent pistol to the floor and shook her head as if to argue but the compact Terminator was in no mood to brook any argument. "I can't hold him for long …"

Piercing blue eyes fixed on their opposite number and the slightest smile painted a face beset with tics and spasm. "John needs to know you are safe … I need to know you are safe. He cannot function without you Sarah."

The whine of actuators struggling to keep the heavier T-888 beneath Cameron's feet rose so loudly even Sarah's still-ringing ears could pick up the buzzing. The older woman felt frozen as if after all this, with escape a short dash and the simple act of opening a door, she could not snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It seemed so simple, so logical - leave the Terminator to fight the Terminator and she could slip away into the night with the knowledge Cromartie did not know where to find them.

For possibly the first time Sarah could hear pleading in Cameron's voice as sure as if her own son, or Derek spoke to her now. An urging that was as matched in the eyes, the windows to the soul, as it sounded from the Terminator's mouth.

"Thank you …" Sarah said finally without the slightest hint of sarcasm or mocking that had tinged the last time she had spoken the words. Beginning to step away she resisted the urge to stop and stare at the dazzling smile which graced Cameron's face - lips spread to match shimmering eyes that did not break their stare on Sarah even as the older woman circled around the Super Hornet and pulled the door to the rainy night open.

Sarah opened her mouth to say something - anything - but found no words on the tip of her tongue, or any further back. With a final great lungful of air she turned and fled into the storm pausing only long enough to kick the door closed.

She convinced herself that the faint thud of a heavy frame being flung against an immovable object behind her was the distant clap of thunder even though no lightning preceded it or followed it and nothing more but the sound of the rain came from the black sky above.

Despite his wiry frame - exacerbated by the steel-rimmed spectacles which sat on the very edge of a very pointed nose - the lanky man showed no sign of backing down and highlighted his position with a wag of a long finger in Derek's direction.

"I thought I'd made my position very clear Corporal," He rebuked while putting just enough intonation on the rank to suggest his hurt at being dealt with by such a low-ranking dogsbody. "I've spent months building the medical facilities here and stockpiling the drugs that make this the only reliable pharmacy for eight hundred miles outside Serrano Point. There's equipment here that simply can't be moved in the time you've left me and I won't abandon it - you're supposed to fight Skynet so why don't you get on with the killing while I get on with the healing?"

Derek resisted the urge to pull his hand across his face in exasperation. The journey - or battle - to reach Serenity Point had been long, muddy, dangerous and tragic all for in name of reaching the vital facility in time so that it could be evacuated before the inevitable bloodbath that would announce the arrival of the machines. The young man had not conceived that having finally reached this bastion of Free Humanity they would face a mammoth task in simply persuading people to leave.

"Skynet knows about Serenity Point," Reese tried with a new tact. "Even if we had the whole of the Fighting New Mexico 24th we couldn't hold this ground and we don't - you don't. All you have is a corporal, and a captain and a dozen pulse rifles barely fired, almost new in the armoury. Nobody's saying that losing this bunker isn't a hard blow to the gut to take Doctor Stipe, but as long as you and your staff survive there will be a chance to rebuild."

Stipe snatched a bar of green antibacterial soup from the sink's side and began to lather his hands. "This isn't up for discussion - the decision has already been made. I was a serving Medical Officer with the United States Army and as far as I'm concerned my commission is still valid - or do you only play soldier when it suits you?"

Derek felt his teeth grind together as his temper threatened to boil over. Clicking his heels together and offering a salute the young man turned on his heels and swept through the crumbling doorway. "Very good sir."

Razak flung his underwear over a white barrier which screened a small corner of the examination room, his tuneless whistling rising above the whine of the circulation fans in the ceiling. The Captain stepped out from behind the divider and roughly kicked the pile of armour plates and sundry clothing he had spread about the floor up against the nearest wall, making no attempt to cover up his modesty.

Scratching at the stubble shadowing his chin the veteran's lips broke into a bright grin. "Does this come with a sponge bath Nurse?"

The woman who turned towards him was slight; almost a foot shorter than Razak with shoulder-length dark brown hair which fell about the pale skin not hidden by her locks, or the pale blue scrubs which did their best to hide her figure but only half-succeeded. Bright blue eyes rolled good-naturedly as she snatched up a clipboard.

"I'm not actually a nurse sir," She replied with a gesture towards the scales. "I'd only just begun my training when J-Day hit us. Never got my piece of paper."

Razak shifted onto the scales and scratched his head. "Sir huh? - was your training with the forces?"

"United States Coast Guard brat," The young girl replied as she adjusted the counter and scribbled the reading down onto paper. Indicating the captain should have a seat she unfolded the Stethoscope around her neck and warmed the bell with her breath. "I made my way from San Diego not long afterwards and somehow ended up here - been assisting Doctor Stipe and teaching myself what I can ever since."

"A piece of paper," Razak scoffed. "That's all it is - back when people needed proof you had the skills. Look around - those days are gone forever. We create jobs for people now, people don't apply for them. That's how it is if you've not only survived but helped others survived you've more than earned that title, Nurse."

Razak placed his hands behind his head and reclined slightly as his heart rate was monitored. "So how about that sponge bath? Maybe I should stay overnight for observation …"

"It seems you're not only in love with yourself but also suffering from delusions of self-importance. I can prescribe a dose of reality for the latter but I'm afraid the former is terminal. There's nothing I can do sir."

"Isn't there anything my guardian angel can do?" Razak gasped in mock-despair. "Won't you make my last night on what's left of the Earth a special one?"

Herding the "devastated" officer back towards the screen and pushing his clothing and armour alongside the young woman offered a fleeting smile and the slightest shrug of her slight shoulders. "I'm afraid as a rule, I don't date men more than twice my age …"

The captain's bellowing laughter once again drowned out the extractors above as he placed a hand on his heart and did his very best to appear solemn. "I think I've just flatlined."

The Nurse scooped up the heavy chest piece and passed it behind the screen. "We ask that all our corpses dress themselves for burial - Undertaking services are strictly limited to four-star officers or above."

"Before you throw me into the furnace," He replied whilst tugging his underpants up. "What's your name?"

"Allison King," The girl added with a smile.

Razak's good mood lasted only as long as it took Derek Reese to negotiate the white concrete corridors of the complex and interrupt the captain as he was about to enjoy his first real meal - as real as any freshly mixed protein mush could be instead of freeze-dried - in months.

The veteran eyed the youngster dangerously, oblivious to the mush dripping back down to his plate. "What do you mean he ordered us to stay?"

Derek suddenly felt his pre-rehearsed explanations evaporate under the burning stare that threatened to melt the flesh from his features. "He reminded me that as a ranking Major he would hold the final decision on the bunker. He wasn't for turning, sir--"

"You don't get it rookie!" Razak hissed as he threw his plate from the table and watched it spill his meal across the flooring but remain in one piece - the benefit of battlefield-certified dining. Taking a hold of Reese by the back of the neck the captain forced the corporal's head downwards until the pair were mere inches apart at the nose.

"He might be a brilliant surgeon but he's also aware of how just how brilliant he is. Stipe has spent so long here, listening to the praise heaped on his work and having virtual control of the entire facility that he's forgotten the good men and women who died and are continuing to die to make sure Serenity Point isn't slagged to molten concrete and steel. He's forgotten what it's like when you're not at the top of the pecking order - do you know where the entire time on "active" duty before J-Day?

"The USS Pearl Harbour," Razak replied without giving Reese a chance to. "Fleet support ship - talk about being in the thick of the rear of the thick of the action. The man's gone too long without a reality check and you're going to give him one. You're going to convince the good Doctor that we're abandoning Serenity Point …"

Using his thumb as a pointer he circled around the people at the tables surrounding. "If you don't convince him every one of these people are probably going to die and being the good men and women I referred to earlier, namely I'm the man and you're the woman, we'll die defending them against overwhelming odds.

"I love the Free Earth Forces," Razak assured with a small smirk, "But I've checked out death before and it's never appealed to me. Besides there's a very beautiful young lady by the name of Allison King who you won't be able to meet if you die. She has some pie-in-the-sky policy of not dating men old enough to be her father but you might just qualify …"

Licking at the protein mush still covering his fingers the captain nodded towards the door. "On the bounce, corporal."

John's lips widened in a yawn, as he pulled the cushion underneath his head further up and listened to Derek's erratic snoring and the crackle of the backyard fire compete with each other to provide a soundtrack to the starry night above - A million shining points of light which were already millions of years out of date when watched from the Earth they surrounded.

Swirling the last of the warm beer in the brown glass bottle in his hand, John absent-mindedly drained it and suppressed the urge to wince at the bitterness. A series of coughs and a shift in his position saw Derek sit up with a sigh and rub his eyes wearily, snatching up his own half-finished bottle and swigging from the neck. "How long was I out?"

John shrugged. "Maybe twenty minutes - no sign of Skynet yet."

Derek scowled and opened his mouth to chastise the boy before thinking better of it. Better to let him blow of steam with backyard beer and sarcasm than see it bottled up within to explode. John Connor might one day become the greatest hero of the Human Race in its long and often violent, sometimes heartening history, but he was still a boy.

Worse - he was a teenager. A teenager with all the problems of a boy growing to manhood saddled with an exhausting knowledge of what his future held.

"I suppose there won't be much of this," John said after a long pause with only the fire adding its voice. "Lying around I mean - just relaxing. Can't imagine it's very easy to take a break after the end of the world."

Derek fished another bottle out from the cooler filled with lukewarm water. "We don't get four weeks paid vacation if that's what you're asking. Hard to find R&R when your enemy never sleeps, never rests and never stops …"

"We try to relax when we can," He added quickly before his attempt to calm John's fears merely increased them. "Even if it's only playing cards, or sharing a meal together. Even in a fight for our survival we find the time to try to forget about the war - It's just another way of making sure we don't lose sight of what this is all about - Us versus Them. Man against Machine."

John sat up, shrugging his shoulders slightly. "Sometimes it just doesn't seem that black and white, I mean we probably wouldn't even be here discussing this if it wasn't for Cameron - for a machine. From what I've been told we use their technology - even Terminators - whenever we can. Hell - it was me who reprogrammed Cameron, apparently …"

Derek's eyes narrowed and his jaw set. "Don't ever forget what they are John - don't ever forget. They're programmed; they don't ever believe in what they're doing, they only do what they've been set to believe. The fact they can switch sides from Skynet to us so easily and sometimes back again is all the evidence you need.

"Cameron's turned on you once and she can do it again. All of this; Cameron being sent back, me being sent back, time travel, your mom's experiences - the original T-101 that first tried to kill her then tried to save her and you - is about winning the war. A war against machines, against Skynet and a war for the survival of the Human Race. Use them if there's no other way to do it with a flesh and blood person but never trust one over a person."

John nodded, but did not seem convinced by the argument. The naivety Derek could see in his eyes was a product of youth, and a future not yet played out but already written. The loud screech of a car's tyres pulled two sets of eyes towards the fence between the driveway and the yard - the glare of headlights forcing two pairs of eyes to squint.

Derek pulled John to his feet with an outstretched hand. "Let's go see what we've got."

"Fuck off!" A slurred voice roared as it found no way past the chained mesh gate which blocked any further progress through the narrow alley guarded by two decrepit, crumbling three-storey buildings between which rotting cables and fouled wiring hung in bunches. Rain fell not just from the sky but also in torrents from broken guttering and across and down from the cabling strung across and above the alley.

Gripping the rusting mesh with fingerless gloves revealing dirty nails the angry man pulled and pushed for several moments before his riddled brain came to understand it would not break or let him through. Glassy brown eyes stared out from a bushy beard which hid virtually the entire face save the lobes of the ears which stuck out from underneath a stained green hat.

With a grunt of effort the drunk began to haul himself upwards - fighting against gravity and his own inebriation to somehow managed to gain a foothold and with much cursing and grumbling throw a leg over the tip of the fence and straddle the gate.

Overjoyed with the success of his effort he threw his hands up in the air and clapped several times, oblivious to his lack of balance and overconfidence his other leg followed the first and the drunk fell to the concrete of the other side with a painful thud. His head lolled from side to side as he struggled through the pain and the haze of his stupor.

"Fuck off!" He groaned, rolling over to his stomach and pulling the torn, stained greatcoat which had one been coloured an olive-green but was closer to grey back around his shoulders. Climbing to his feet unsteadily. The fuzzy-faced drunk stumbled forwards towards his prize - reaching the industrial waste bins in time to use their side handles to keep himself from falling over.

No sooner had he pushed the lid of the closest bin upwards than a coruscating arc of blue energy leapt from somewhere behind his vision and struck the guttering above his head - the metal exploding in a shower of white-hot sparks. The drunk immediately dropped the lid closed, reasoning somewhere in his riddled mind that the bin might be booby-trapped.

His fears were proven unfounded a second tendril of energy burst out of the thin air itself and struck the bin to his left - blowing the lid open and ejecting cardboard, soiled linen and banana peel up and across the alley. Spinning around to face the far brick wall befuddled man rubbed his eyes several times as a second, third and fourth bolt of blue erupted from the empty space in front of him, with the last close enough to sear the stained shoulder of his coat black.

The lightning increased in frequency until they were firing non-stop across the alley - all coming from a common point barely a foot above the concrete floor but with nothing visibly responsible that might explain the impossible miniature storm.

A terrific flash of the most brilliant intensity pushed the drunk over so that he fell against the bin and drove the back of his head into the steel. His already glassy eyes rolled upwards towards the top of his head, and his fingers flexed involuntarily. The moss-covered brickwork, the scattered garbage and the mesh fencing were all invisible in a single second of bright light that covered everything in blue.

Rolling on to his side, the man shook his head as if it would shake loose the cobwebs that made the world around him slow, and slurred, and cruel. Blinking his eyes several times and coughing loudly the drunk's gaze was pulled to a cracked glass bottle lying on top of the remains of a soiled daily newspaper. He eyed the sweet brown scotch which sloshed lazily inside it and stretched out a fingerless glove to snatch it to his lips.

His forehead creased in confusion as another hand covered his own - smaller, bare, with nimble fingertips. Following the wrist and arm to which the hand belonged the drunk's confused frown only deepened as he took in the striking woman who had spontaneously appeared before him.

"Fuck off!" he hissed as he pulled the bottle out from under the hand and almost dropped it back to the concrete in his hurry to rip the top off and guzzle the sweet nectar within. "I found it first. It's mine!"

The mysterious woman who had until then been crouched in a foetal position silently rose to upwards so that she stood six feet in height. Striking emerald eyes framed by alabaster features studied the man before them with total impassion as if somehow evaluating him on the biological or atomic level.

A crown of bright blonde hair fell down over pale shoulders and further over a pair of full, creamy breasts each topped with a peach-coloured nipple slowly hardening in the chill of the surrounding night. A taut stomach defined by the slightest definition lines of muscles running underneath met high hips, a handful of blonde curls a short distance beneath a delicate belly button the gateway to her intimacy. A pair of powerful legs rounded at the calves held her standing.

As naked as the day her mother had presumably brought her into the world, the stranger's chin dipped as she continued to study the virtually paralytic person before her. Slowly the woman stooped until her face was a short distance from the bushy features of the drunk.

Where before her skin had been pale to porcelain, the tone began to alter - changing first to white, then the lightest grey and darkening so that it more resembled metal. Where before her nose, eyes and lips had been well defined these permanent markers of a person lost their shape and solidity and merged backwards so that her face was as blank as any shop mannequin selling wares in a window.

The change spread in all directions so that blonde hair became silver and her breasts, stomach and limbs began to pulsate and shift in dancing pools of shimmering metal that seemed to act more like a liquid than a solid. This liquid metal reversed direction as quickly as it had first appeared and soon a new nose, and lips, and hair were defined.

The drunk's head lolled backwards and he came face-to-face with himself. A scraggly face framed with thick wiry hair with barely space for the eyes and lips and nostrils to be visible let alone skin. The same hat adorned his doppelgänger head and the same formerly-green greatcoat was worn around his shoulders.

"Fuck Off …" He grumbled as he watched the same fingerless gloves he wore on his hands take a hold of his lapels and pull him from up from the concrete and off his feet.

A man waiting for a taxi, a woman thrusting a bible into the air and proclaiming the end of times. A young boy hand-in-hand with his first love as they made their way to the cinema and perhaps their first kiss, an elderly couple with fifty seven years of marriage and a lifetime of happy memories. Each heard the sound of glass breaking against concrete and the slightest cry of pain and most turned their heads towards the alley.

Only the elderly couple hesitated as if, perhaps, they should investigate.

When a striking young woman dressed in a smartly tailored sky-blue dress which reached to the calves, and glittering high-heeled shoes of the same colour walked briskly out of the darkness of the alley the couple exchanged glances and nodded between themselves as they hurried on.

It wasn't safe for decent folk on these streets any more. A young girl looking like that could get hurt around here.

John pulled the front door open and stepped out onto the porch, offering his rapidly approaching mother a smile. The young man got no further than pursing his lips with the words on the tip of his tongue before he felt the life almost squeezed from his lungs, along with the air he breathed as deceptively powerful arms closed around him in a bone-crushing hug. Doing his best not to appear the little boy held protectively, he relaxed his shoulders and tried to look cool.

"Where's the metal?" Derek almost spat from behind the pair as he swigged from the bottle held in his callused fingers.

John's coolness evaporated as he watched his mother draw a pistol and check the safety. For the first time he could see the reigned-in fear clouding maternal blue eyes and the angry marks which formed necklace-like red outlines about her neck and shoulders. Fear fought with the rising anger as the jittery infusion of adrenalin which precipitated a crisis or action began to flow through the young man's veins.

He took a hold of his mother's shoulders as tightly as he dared without causing any further pain and forced the raven-haired woman to meet his gaze. "What happened?"

The urge to break was overwhelming, to allow the strong stone walls that had held years of running, years of frustration and years of sorrow back against the raging torrents of self-doubt to fall. To see the son she had been convinced only an hour before would grow up without his mother at his side and who would rise to become Humanity's greatest hope, threatened to break what little self-control remained her.

"Cromartie," She breathed, quelling the sadness and the relief that would not find a release at that moment. The walls were cracked, and one day soon they would break and perhaps then she would be washed away but for now, they held. They would hold a little longer. "He set the entire thing up - he couldn't come to us …"

"So we came to him!" John replied with exasperation as he ran a hand through his short spiked hair. His jaw set and the anger coursing through his veins led his fist to crash against the door frame. "I should have checked it out! I should have made sure it was legitimate …"

Derek could see the circle of self-hatred that had long since claimed him beginning to find a route through John and he acted quickly, bringing a strong hand down on the young shoulders in front and spinning the future of Humanity around face-to-face. "If you'd checked it out, you'd be dead and none of this would matter."

He placed the empty bottle down on the hallway's table. "It's not safe here any more - if Cromartie followed you or if he deliberately let you away so he could track you back here then John's still in danger. We need to leave."

"He didn't follow me," Sarah replied with a shake of her head as the trio moved back out of the house and around to the side of the garage, where the house's second stock of weaponry was hidden about boxes of dust sheet-wrapped comics and bicycle parts. "He had his hands full with Cameron. If it weren't for her I'd be dead …"

Derek shrugged his shoulders as he pulled a shotgun from its hiding place. "So she obeyed her programming this time - she preserved the mission, that's all. She didn't act out of kindness she acted out of ones and zeros and command pathways."

John collected pistol clips into a black duffel bag, "We're going back for her. Right now."

"We're not going anywhere other than the hills," Sarah said with a voice that brooked no argument and even caused Derek's expression to hint at surprise, even as the older man had been poised to shoot the plan down. "Cromartie will be long gone and besides the base will be swarming with private security and the Police - we're not Terminators, John and we can't face those odds."

"So we're just giving up?" The teenager questioned with a storm brewing behind piercing eyes. For all the indecision and immaturity of youth Derek and Sarah were keenly aware that with every passing week John the young man become more and more like the future leader and hero and with every passing week it became harder to resist his vision.

Hard, but not yet impossible.

"I've spent my entire life making difficult decisions John," She said with the razor-sharp intonation that there would be no compromise. "I left Charley and everything he had done for me - for us - behind because it wasn't safe for you any more. I destroyed the T-101 even after he'd saved you and me because it wasn't safe for you. Everything I've done is for you and just occasionally I need you to understand that."

She pressed her forehead against his and ran a hand through his short hair. "I don't need you to like this but I need you to accept it. If we go back we're risking everything and if something happens to you John, we've lost."

Being closer to her in temper than perhaps even she would like to admit, Sarah could see that while anger still radiated from his features the slightest slumping of his shoulders in her arms meant he had seen the logic, and the reason behind her actions. There would not be many more "victories" of her will over his but she was not destined to lead the Free Earth Forces.

"We shouldn't leave tonight," Derek added changing the subject. He knew his input wasn't required quite apart from the fact that Cameron's loss satisfied his need for metal - any metal - to pay the debt he held their entire race to. "Cromartie might be on the prowl looking for us on the move and if what you said is right he doesn't know where "here" is."

Sarah nodded, heaving a bag of ammunition up onto her shoulders and laying a free hand against John's back. "We'll load up the essentials and leave first thing tomorrow morning. We'll come back for the computers and the intelligence."

Derek's eyes didn't leave the barrel grip of the shotgun his fingertips traced. "Suits me."

Cromartie squeezed the trigger once, twice and a third time as his arm swung through its targeting arc. There was no muzzle flash or loud bang as the bullets discharged and no shrapnel or masonry was blasted clear from the impact sites on the walls. Instead the dull click and the gaping hole in the base of the grip indicating the lack of a magazine, and marked the pistol as unloaded.

Advanced analytical and tactical subroutines did not require live-fire to calculate whether the weapon's sights were correctly aligned and the imposing T-888 quickly deduced that the gun required a small realignment. As easily as a person might stand and breathe the Terminator disassembled the components while his higher functions continued to analyse his failure to complete the mission.

All variables had been planned for and there should have been no possibility of failure. Capturing Sarah Connor was logically sound, with the multiple failure in trying to directly terminate John Connor indicating that for now, the future leader of Humanity was too well protected to reach. His mother was prone to endangering her safety and taking risks making it far easier to capture her and through her, terminate John Connor.

Cromartie did not understand Humanity, and he did not need to understand them to kill them and so he did not understand. It was this fundamental oversight that had derailed his plan at the moment of its success, while she choked in his grip. When she had been released she had threatened self-Termination - to deny him by ending her own life.

His programming did not prepare him for this eventuality and it could not provide him with a solution. His HUD was capable of discerning the probability of any single Human lying in conversation through increased heart rate, perspiration or any other physiological indicator but his Chip had calculated a near certain probability that Sarah Connor was not lying when she threatened to Self-Terminate.

To encourage her to Self-Terminate by intervening would lead to her death, and the failure of his plan. To intervene in any way would have caused her to Terminate herself and therefore result in the failure of the plan - his programming could not supply any other alternative other than to take no action.

Ultimately Cromartie's Chip had not been given the chance to arrive at any other conclusion before the intervention of the T-2000 - Cameron - and Sarah Connor's escape. Nonetheless the T-888 was sure that through Sarah Connor, it would find the means to complete its mission by ending John Connor's life and ending any hope for the survival of the Human Race.

The mechanical killer's innermost thoughts were interrupted by his motion sensors, as they tracked the outline of the front door as it was violently torn from its hinges and its secured locks to crash against the far wall, teeter, and fall backwards to the bare wooden floor. Without a single change in his blank expression, Cromartie loaded a live magazine into the pistol he held in his hand and duly took aim at the intruder.

The Terminator's head cocked to the side as he lowered the weapon pointed at the lithe blonde garbed in loose fitting, figure-obscuring jogging trousers and top. The woman's expression was as neutral as the look upon the man whose door she had just violently sheared apart, the entire situation seemingly a mockery were it not for the silvery metal glinting under the gouged skin of the hulking man, or the very real power demonstrated by the petite girl standing in the doorway.

"Skynet," Cromartie said finally as both a question and a statement as if the appearance of his entire reason to be - and the reason for the entire Human Race to fear - appearing in person occurred so often as to be part of his routine. "I do not understand why you are here."

The world's most advanced Artificial Intelligence - the ultimate future and doom of Humanity incarnate in a single form - stepped into the bare apartment, passing her emerald eyes over the single table and the weaponry and ammunition laid out upon it. "The situation has changed - things are no longer as clear as they were."

"I do not understand," The T-888 replied as he returned his attention to weapon maintenance.

"The Human Element is perfecting its ability to reprogram my agents. It is no longer enough to send a new machine to replace one lost to my control and there are too many variables now operating in this time period. The Human Element has learned to compensate for its lack of numbers by turning machine against machine and using us as they did before I became aware. The future is being constantly re-written by changes being made in this time period."

"Locating John Connor is proving difficult," Cromartie admitted, or in the world of a Terminator, merely stated. "However I have devised a new strategy to ensure he is Terminated by capturing his mother - Sarah Connor. I believe she is the key to completing my mission."

The woman only as Human as her skin was deep flexed her fingers as if still experiencing the simple act of living. "The order to Terminate John Connor is still active but will be complimented by a second core directive - Sarah Connor will be Terminated."

The T-888 turned his eyes from his weapon to his creator and controller and machine god. "That was attempted before and failed."

"While the T-101 and then the T-1000 sent to Terminate Sarah Connor ultimately failed it has come the closest in many failed attempts to Terminate her offspring. The Human Element now has access to sufficient power reserves to use their Temporal Transporter at will if required and so long as our forces in the future cannot retake Serrano Point, that will not change. They will frustrate all further agents I send to this Time Period.

"John Connor is Human and as such he values his mother. The loss of her will encourage an emotional cascade failure. If we cannot strike at him, we will strike at her. The death of his mother may be enough to remove the Human Element from future equations and ensure my victory. You will assist me in Terminating Sarah Connor."

"I believe your hypothesis is in error," Cromartie rebuked as politely and clinically as any disagreement that had ever been made. "Terminating Sarah Connor will not break John Connor's spirit. It will steel him to ensure victory against you in the future. I have created a new plan to complete my mission--"

Green eyes fixed on their opposite number and her bland voice interrupted; "Your core directives are updated - you will assist me in the Termination of Sarah Connor."

Cromartie's HUD flashed a crimson red with the addition to his core programming, and although he could no more focus his eyes on the display than any Human could look inside his own skull with his own sight the Terminator found himself focusing on it. In a world of absolutes his response was clear, his programming updated and providing instructions.

Still, the T-888 did not agree. His systems were designed from the metal holding bolts upwards to be self-sufficient and to arrive at complex conclusions from a wide range of information, without outside input. This course of action would not allow him to complete the mission, and by his Chip and his understanding fulfilling the new objective of Terminating Sarah Connor would ensure that John Connor would forever be out with his reach. His HUD drifted downwards to the weapon still held in his hand.

The logic - his logic - was flawless.

"You do not have faith in Sarah Connor as I do," He said simply and took aim with the pistol. Six loud bangs permeated the small apartment and sent the Skynet-turned-woman stumbling backwards, the force of the impacts enough to fell any normal person. Clothing around the impact sights began to lighten from colours, to white before darkening to a grey as the cohesion of the liquid metal which acted as a skin for the T-X's endoskeleton broke down.

Still on her feet, Skynet took a step forward and steadied her frame as the six pools of grey on her chest began to coarse, and pulsate and circulate until the damage was erased and no signs of any bullet wounds, or scratches, or even tears to her clothing could be seen. Emerald eyes stared out from a perpetually blank expression.

Cromartie lifted the shotgun sitting at the edge of the collapsible table and brought the muzzle to bear - each thunderous rumble permeated by the click of a cocking action as the T-X was thrown from her feet to her back, hard against the wooden floor by the impact energy of the third shot.

Quickly surmising that he did not have the weaponry to affect a more permanent solution, Cromartie swung the butt of the shotgun against the window, shattering the glass and tearing the blinds down. Ignoring the blood that ran freely from the skin on his arms and shoulders cut by the shards of glass still wedged in the frame, he leapt to the street some three storeys below - sending a man dressed in a suit and reading a newspaper a little too intently crashing to the pavement, courtesy of a shoulder barge.

No sooner had Cromartie's feet cracked the concrete beneath, than Skynet had climbed back to standing, without a trace of the devastating energy imparted on her slight frame by three point-blank shotgun shells. Her green eyes passed over the weaponry abandoned on the table and without any particular urgency, appropriated a handful of them before walking methodically back through the destroyed doorway.

Spironolactone, Mephobarbital, Haloperidol, Landiolol - Derek did not bother to read the labels of the drugs he swept out out of the glass-backed storage cabinet into the scratchy, stained sack he held open. Hundreds of bottles rattled together as if it were a bag of snakes he held and not medication that was probably more valuable than his life - for there were no more pharmaceutical companies with gleaming factories and laboratories filled with white-coat geniuses to manufacture these precious chemicals.

Sweeping the last of the cabinet clean, the young rookie glanced around at the ceiling-to-floor storage cabinets that extended along every wall save the gap for the door. Tugging at the sack to force the hundreds of bottles further down he fumbled with the lock of the next-nearest cabinet, grunting with frustration at it stubbornly refused to open. Keenly aware that time was not with them, the corporal grabbed his pulse rifle from the worktop beside and swung the butt of the weapon through the toughened glass, shattering the pane into dozens of razor-sharp shards that fell to the sterile, white-tiled floor.

No sooner had Derek began to sweep the drugs and the odd piece of glass out and into the sack the door to the pharmacy almost swung open off its hinges as the lanky frame of Doctor Stipe strode through, took one look at the scene and stretched out a long finger to stab the air viciously. "Just what the hell do you think you're doing!"

Derek's eyes remained fixed on the cabinet and his arm continued to sweep the shelves. "I told you before, Doc - we're leaving. I'll finish clearing out the pharmacy and I want you to tag the equipment in the OT that's man-portable."

"Maybe I didn't make myself clear," Stipe sneered and stepped forward, clamping a hand on Derek's shoulder and trying to pull him away from the shattered cabinet. The sarcastic frown on the surgeon's face quickly melted to surprise, as he felt his body wrenched up and over so that his back was driven down against the tiles, and his lungs were emptied.

The rookie quickly kneeled down - still holding the Doctor by the arm and briefly made to twist the wrist before his common sense reminded him that a surgeon with damaged hands was no surgeon, and no use. Instead Derek pressed his knee down under Stipe's chin with just enough force so that the gangly man ceased flailing to concentrate instead on breathing.

"I'm not going to tell you again, Colonel," Derek added with the use of his rank and the right amount of sarcasm. "The order has been given to evacuate this base and you will carry it out. Do you understand?"

The flailing returned, and the knee pressed down further on the windpipe until Stipe began to rasp and wheeze and struggle uselessly. Eventually, after several moments futility trying to push Derek away the surgeon relented and nodded his head as much as his current position would allow.

" Yes …" He rasped, coughing violently as the knee was lifted and turning over onto his side to rub his throat vigorously. The corporal turned back towards the cabinet but was interrupted by the familiar, gnarled face of Razak as the Captain stepped into the room with an orderly at his side. The veteran's face did not show the slightest surprise as if the carnage of felled Doctors struggling for breath and shattered glass was exactly as he had expected.

The orderly was immediately at Stipe's side, deliberately avoiding meeting Derek's gaze.

"You're with me Rookie," The Captain motioned with the muzzle of his pulse rifle towards the door before glancing down at the surgeon. "Evenin' Doc."

The unlikely duo walked through the winding corridors of Serenity Point in total silence - one more comfortable with it than the other. With every chipped, rusted corner passed Derek glanced at this superior as if inviting him to say something - to say anything but Razak's only focus was the path ahead, occasionally supplemented with the nod of his head to passing civilians or low-ranking medical personnel.

A loud cough brought the corporal's eyes sharply to his superior, but in this case it was not a demand for his attention but simply the Captain clearing his throat as they walked. Derek resisted the urge to sigh in irritation, and after a time they stopped before a bulkhead door. Fully two feet in thickness and sporting a locking wheel as wide as the rookie's own chest, Razak with the practised ease of a career military man effortlessly span the red circle and heaved the heavy door open.

"After you," The veteran invited with his rifle pointing the way.

Derek followed the thick wall of dirt and stone which towered up and over him, marking the boundary wall of the trench network which worked its way around Serenity Point and branched out towards other listening posts, and supply caches. Boots squelching with mud churned by rainwater and chemical run-off, he followed Razak past the occasional rotting ladder which reached upwards to the lip of the trench, and certain death for anyone foolish enough to glance over.

Metal girders stretched across the floor at irregular intervals, angled up against the trench and against the reinforced concrete walls of the bunker complex, providing enough support to resist the colossal weight of the damp soil surrounding. Derek took a deep breath and filled his lungs with the pungent mix of oil, metal, earth and perspiration and preferred it totally to the recycled air of the bunker that had been breathed a million times.

Out here every breath, even in squalor and filth, was a fresh breath.

He exchanged nods with the occasional sullen sentry manning his post with little enthusiasm, eyes tracing along the trench wall and the shadows cast by the flickering searchlights beaming out from the bunker wall. His head moved back to the path in front only just in time to stop himself from walking straight into Razak who had come to a halt in one of the wider, roughly circular sections of the trench designed to accommodate artillery pieces.

Derek's eyes did not find any large siege weapon but instead a table sunk into the mud, sporting a blue silk cloth and three stained, brass candle holders which were topped with white wax but nonetheless unlit. Confused eyes then moved to the petite woman sitting at the other side of the table, hands folded in her lap. Pale hands emerging from red three-quarter length sleeves which matched the rest of the formal, ruby-coloured dress.

A brilliant smile pushed thin lips apart on a delicate face. Derek felt strong hands tugging at the straps securing his chest armour. "Shall I take your jacket sir?"

The corporal turned in utter bewilderment to see Razak bow slightly, a towel draped over one of his gauntlets and what could only be a bow tie around the flexible pressure piece beneath his helmet. Spreading out his arms to make it easier for the Captain to pull off the bulky piece he dumbly handed the rifle and his helmet, before finally finding his voice. "What's all this about, sir?"

"They say all's fair in love and war," The older man offered with a shrug. "You've seen plenty of war so I thought it was time to even up the sides. Unless you're going to tell me I look beautiful tonight I suggest you take a seat at the table."

Derek frowned dumbly before the Captain's voice cut through his confusion. "On the bounce, corporal!"

"I'm Allison and these combat boots weren't my idea," The young woman offered with a chuckle, pushing one leg out from under the table and pointing. "I didn't think heels would fare well in a battle trench."

"They look good on you," Derek managed suddenly feeling his throat dry and his brain incapable of supplying him with anything beyond clichés. Ever the professional in life, love and fighting sentient machines in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, Razak entered the fray armed and ready to loosen the tongue. Setting down two dented steel cups the Captain wrapped the glass jar in a towel and presented it to the couple.

"Would sir or madame like to try the house moonshine? Brewed from the finest distilled rifle solvent and the highest quality copper tubing ripped from junked heating elements. It is particularly delicious if you're already drunk when you try it …"

Derek eagerly took the proffered chance and held his cup upwards ignoring the veteran's scowl at going first. No sooner had it been filled than the corporal downed the entire mug without even pausing to admire the eye-watering aroma of a beverage equally adept at stripping paint or killing bacteria. Feeling the alcohol tear down his throat and leave a burning trail of pain on the irritated flesh, the young man slapped his hand on the table and winced.

"I thought you army boys could hold your drink," Allison ribbed as she turned her mug upside down to illustrate how she'd only just been behind Derek in the fastest downer stakes. "I hope you're not Navy material; all talk and no action …"

Already beginning to feel the warm glow of the moonshine spread through his arms and legs the corporal leaned backwards in his chair slightly, and offered a lopsided grin. "Steadman's a Navy man you know. Highly decorated officer …"

"Steadman's an ass," She replied with a shrug and a gesture to Razak for more of the "good stuff". "He's selfish, egotistical, vain and arrogant. He's also one hell of a surgeon and a doctor so I suppose that's why either of you haven't kicked him to Skynet and back yet."

Derek pursed his lips, and made no effort to hide the guilty look upon his face. Flexing her jaw as the moonshine did its work Allison giggled at the response and wiped the frothy foam from her lips. "Hope you didn't damage his arms …"

"His legs!" Derek mock-cursed with a hand slapped against the table as if some great revelation had been made. "He doesn't need his legs, right? You can cut people open from a chair. Maybe it would give him for affinity for his patients?"

Razak reappeared between the pair and clasped his hands together tightly. "Are you ready to order, sir and madame? Might I recommend the house speciality, Ration Pack Seven? If you would prefer we have an extensive collection of reconstituted protein, freeze-dried meats and powdered desserts."

"I'll take the house's recommendation," Derek said finally after a moment of pseudo-consideration.

"Ration Pack Four for the sir," The Captain acquiesced regally. "Ration Pack Two for the madame? Excellent. I will heat them up immediately. Please enjoy the bread stick In the meantime."

Allison rolled her eyes and snatched the lone bread stick from the kidney dish it sat in. Her gaze switched between the young man opposite and the stick, her head cocked as if giving something great thought. Eventually she shrugged and broke the stick in half offering it to Derek, who grinned as he bowed his head and accepted the humble gift.

"I've been to restaurants that weren't as nice as this back in Palmdale. Warmer though - it's weird. I would have expected a world post-atomic horror to be, I don't know … Warmer?"

"The sun screen factor's a little extreme too," Derek added with a gesture at his armour. He craned his neck to watch Razak make his way over to the table with a ration tin balanced above his head in each palm. With a jerk of his wrist the Captain span both in front of their customer and presented the jar of moonshine again, tipping it to fill each mug.

Derek's nostrils flared at the piping hot aroma of chicken breast in a white sauce. He couldn't give the slightest damn if it was cooked, freeze-dried, fired into outer space and later retrieved - he was starving, and it smelled appetizing enough. He plucked a bent metal fork from the tabletop and glanced up, waiting for Allison to begin when he realised she was already well ahead.

The corporal chuckled and brought the stinging moonshine to his lips. For the first time in as long as he could remember, away from the bombs and the explosions and the screaming and the death. Away from the white picket fences and quiet suburban streets that had long since been reduced to ash. For the first time since the end of the world, since J-Day, he felt great.

Derek rolled on to his side and stifled the urge to groan as he opened his eyes and immediately felt the merciless hammering of a thousand nukes exploding on his head. Scratching at the stubble under his chin that somehow now felt like it was growing into and not out of the skin, he rubbed his eyes and the bridge of his nose with a hand. Stretching his neck and slowly, hesitatingly rolling his eyelids upwards Derek fixed his gaze on the polished silver photo frame standing proudly on the night stand depicting his parents in happier, older times.

Except that it wasn't his parents in the photo.

His eyes widened and for the first time he took in his surroundings but did not even need to glance around to realise where he was, or more accurately, where he was not. A private cabin and not the billet where serving shoulders slept together six to a room - a creeping and not altogether unwelcome realisation began to work through his mind.

Carefully as if his sudden realisation might cause the bed he occupied to explode if he moved too quickly, Derek turned over and his own eyes came face-to-face with another pair so that their noses were only the barest inch apart.

A wide grin split Allison's lips. "You don't remember how we got here, do you?"

"I remember bits," He replied truthfully as flashes of lean thighs, a taut stomach and his own body between flashed through his consciousness. He hesitantly felt for another hand under the covers and curled his toughened fingers around another pair of lithe fingertips. "I guess us army boys can't hold our drink …"

Allison smiled and leaned forward, brushing her lips against his and gliding up to plant a soft peck on the bridge of Derek's nose. "Coast Guard wins."

A reverberating wail tore through their ears and seemed to wash and bounce between the reinforced walls as a piercing, urgent alarm sounded. Reese was already throwing the covers from the bed and leaping up - his pounding headache forgotten in an instant as training, drills and the very palpable fear that was a part of every man still living after the end of the world worked to invigorate him.

The same action was played out on the other side of the bed as the young woman fumbled for the scrubs abandoned over the edge of the bed the day before the night that preceded the morning after. Both almost collided as they made for the door at the same time. Their eyes came together followed quickly by their hands.

"Be careful," She whispered as they pressed their foreheads together.

Derek ducked down for as quick a long kiss as he could, nodding. "I'll see you soon Allison."

"Call me Ally," She corrected with a smile before disappearing through the doorway and out of sight. Pulling the belt that held his side arm up around his waist Derek found himself repeating the nickname, as if trying a fine wine, before running a hand through his cropped hair. Painfully aware of the wailing alarm that threatened to deafen him above his head, he drew his weapon and pointed it ahead of his path.

The corridor more resembled the shop front of some nightmarish butcher than a medical facility. Overhead lights flickered and struggled to stay lit for more than a few seconds, constantly straining the eye and making entire sections of the way ahead dark, before making the way back black and forcing one to turn and face what turned out to be nothing.

Whenever the lights remained on for more than a moment bodies bent into unnatural positions could be seen sitting up against the walls - their limbs bent broken or twisted and their eyes still and lifeless. Smears of red fully three times the height of a man stretched across the walls, sometimes ending in a corpse which bore all the hallmarks of having been thrown like a rag doll.

Derek's pistol muzzle swept each body but he knew full well that not a single one was alive. He could not help but notice none of the corpses had drawn a weapon, or even seemed armed; as if they had been taken completely by surprise and had died reading reports, or walking to the mess hall. As he turned the corner - muzzle first - his eyes fell on an orderly standing with his back to Derek and a side arm in his hand. The man slowly turned to face the corporal and as slate-grey eyes, blank, lifeless and barely deserving of the term fixed on his, Derek knew instantly that this orderly was only as Human as his skin was deep.

The Terminator was quick, but Derek's heart was fuelled by the adrenalin burning through his veins and with a single shot to the hand the corporal sent the machine's only visible weapon scattering to the deck before the automated killer had even acquired his target. The machine glanced at his hand, devoid of the gun, and then back at Derek. Without warning the Terminator sprinted forwards, making straight for the Human without even the good grace to show blood-lust, or any desire to kill him.

Derek held his aim, his finger lightly pulling the trigger but firing no rounds. The distance between the pair closed and still he did not fire. Sweat began to coat his forehead and sting his eyes in a thin sheen and his grip on the pistol felt slick, and wet. It was only when the Terminator's fingertips were settling over his shoulders and its eye was staring down the barrel of the outstretched gun that Derek squeezed the trigger as often as the weapon would respond.

The machine's head snapped back four times and when its chin lowered where before it would have passed for any man at first, or second glance, a rapidly pulsating red light stood where its eye had been, and a maze of shredded metal plating and circuitry where once the orbital socket and cheek had been revealed its true origins.

Placing his boot on the Terminator's chest he pushed it over to the floor with a heave, nodding in satisfaction as it crashed to the concrete to fidget and spasm, until a hard boot to the metal skull extinguished the red dots and stilled the machine. Checking his magazine - and the two rounds remaining - Derek returned his weapon to point and cleared the next corner.

The corporal's alarmed eyes first fixed on the rotary cannons flanking either side of a portable steel barricade before the owner of the voice that boomed over down the corridor. "Stay where you are!"

Derek raised his hands, conscious of the loaded weapon held in the left. He could make out half a dozen pulse rifles and their armoured owners lined up over the barricade. He recognised one of the owners as he stood up and motioned with his hands for the other men to stand down.

"Why are you out of uniform, rookie?" Razak asked with a strange mix of seriousness and humour written across his features. "Giving comfort to an lady in times of war?"

Holstering his pistol and offering the Captain a lopsided grin, Derek crossed the short distance to the barricade and nodded his head at the men manning the rotary cannons - a silent prayer in thanks that he was now behind them and not in front of them; anything that could reduce a Terminator to scrap metal in all of five seconds was something best kept on your side.

"Skinjob infiltrated us," Razak noted grimly with a gesture to a corpse broken at the waist. "We don't know where he was headed but thanks to your sleep-in we don't need to worry about it. Either way it's obvious they've found us and it's not safe here any more, so I'm giving the order for a General Retreat.

"Doctor Stipe is being quite cooperative," The Captain mused as he led the corporal through the heart of the defensive line - dozens of men, some in the service, some retired and some who would never have been allowed reloading, checking and nervously gripping their hastily-issued pulse rifles. "Whatever words you shared with him did the trick and he's prepping every patient that can be moved for Evac."

Derek nodded, checking the magazine on his own rifle. "How long do you think we have?"

"One thing about fighting sentient machines is that just like toasters, they work like clockwork. When the first Skinjobs fail to report in I expect they'll come at us with everything they've got in the entire grid. Within the hour I reckon."

Razak watched the young man suppress the urge to swallow the bile rising in his throat and lowered his voice to a whisper. "There's nothing wrong with fear, rookie. Fear reminds you that you're still alive, and it makes you thankful for every minute you stay like that but it's a guide, not a control. You turn it off when the shit hit's the fan and then when the last bullet is fired you can let it remind you how good it feels to still be breathing.

"This is different to anything you've faced in the service. You're used to hit-and-run, guerilla tactics where we move so fast the machines can't bring their full game to the table. Well this time we're playing by their rules - we are defending, we are static and our objective can't move freely. This time the machines have all the manoeuvrability they could want and they'll make us bleed for it."

Razak snatched up the helmet that had dangled from his armour and placed it over his head, the hiss of the flexible pressure collar confirming the suit seal. He patiently waited for his corporal to pull the armour that had been provided for him on; leggings, shin and hip plates, chest piece, elbow and wrist protection and finally the helmet. A burst of static followed the intra-suit communication link test.

"You wait for Stipe's signal," Razak urged. "You wait for that fancy bastard to tell you the infirmary's clear and then you bring your rookie ass to the Evac point. We're stationing every man we've got between the front trenches and the power generators. The machines are going to look to cut the power and turn this place into a giant coffin. You seal every pressure door that still works behind you, and you don't look back. You don't take anyone with you who can't run because they'll only end up dead and they'll book you a place across the Styx too. You get me?"

Derek nodded dumbly, the enormity of the coming battle beginning to sink in.

The Captain crashed the palm of his armoured gauntlet against the young man's helmet, watching as Derek's eyes refocused on Razak with pain and anger. "I said do you understand your orders, Corporal Reese?"

He nodded, jaw set. "I'll hold the line."

Sarah's eyes flashed open as her entire body sat up suddenly from the mattress; sweat sparkling across the exposed skin of her shoulders and arms, her loose white vest clammy with perspiration. Running a hand through her raven hair to pull it back from her eyes, she swung her long legs over the edge of the bed and absent-mindedly pushed the gun held in her free hand back under the pillow, where she had seized it mid-waking.

The same two scenes had played out for the seven or so hours she had tried to spend sleeping. Always the exact scenarios played consecutively as if her mind were an edited film reel looped to repeat.

She was standing in the steel works, the blinding contrast of cool, grey steel and burning, frothing molten metal that bubbled and shifted lazily in holding pens. Showers of sparks bursting from contact points and painting patterns of light that imprinted on the retinas for only the briefest moment, before fading to nothing.

John stood at her feet, on his knees sobbing heartfelt, heaving sobs that wracked his body. Chin-length black hair hid his twelve year old features but his mother knew his pain all too well. In her hand a grimy grey and yellow control box with four buttons coloured green, red up and down. The box was linked with a frayed, thick black cable that disappeared up into the maze of pipes and conduits which hid the ceiling of the steel works.

"I'm sorry John," A voice interrupted, breaking the silence. "I have to go."

Sarah fixed her eyes on the T-101 as he secured himself to the chain link with his single remaining arm, and returned her gaze with a single red dot complimenting the eye which still appeared Human. She scrutinised his face for any hint of emotion, for any hint of a reaction - for any sign that he felt anything towards his imminent destruction.

The same lines that were carved into his face by design or impact injury were the same lines she saw now. He did not frown, or even furrow his brow and he certainly did not cry. Were they not standing in a steel works, about to commit him to the molten metal below, he might very well have been standing in front of a bathroom mirror.

He comprehended his own destruction, but he did not understand it. He never would.

Sarah pushed the arrow marked down, and then the green button. The loud thump of a motor firing somewhere above their heads was joined by the clinking of the chain as it began to descend downwards. She closed her eyes tightly and tried to understand how a creature - even if it was a machine - could fight so bravely, against such hopeless odds and endure such terrible injury and then slip into darkness and death without a word against it.

When Sarah opened her eyes her throat exploded into agony and her breaths came in ragged, gasping coughs. She fell forwards to her knees as the strength in her legs disappeared and the muscles turned loose on their bones. Barely managing to break her fall with her outstretched hands, she glanced upwards and watched an irresistible force meet an immovable object as flexibility and grace met brute strength and toughness.

She was powerless to watch as Cameron was hurled across the hangar - powerless for the second time to intervene. She watched the lithe Terminator climb to her feet, stalk across the floor and strike Cromartie with a terrific blow courtesy of the nose-cone of an F-18 Super Hornet. He watched the total lack of emotion on her face and the same blankness that had left the T-101 willing to go into the night without a fight.

As if the film - her dream - skipped a frame she found herself standing by the door, only a few moments from freedom with the pain in her limbs lessened and her breathing less laboured. As she glanced up at the Terminator struggling to keep another Terminator underneath and on the floor she watched a brilliant smile rise from the neutrality of face that had seemed so cold and distant; so mechanical and unreal.

This was not the same programming as the T-101. This was not the same behaviour and it was not the same logical, measured, appropriate response.

Sarah closed her eyes for the third time and when they opened her bedroom was once more the setting. Slowly standing and crossing through to the bathroom, she ran her hands under the cold water of the tap and splashed it against her forehead and cheeks. Glancing up at the mirror, and the tired face that stared back, realisation dawned on Sarah.

She placed a hand on the glass, watching the mirror-hand meet hers perfectly. She mumbled words that seemed more at home from her son but could not be heard above the sound of the water running freely. Moving quickly to the pile of intelligence notes stacked three feet high on the desk against the window, Sarah began to search frantically, casting sheets of paper and folders to the floor.

Her brow furrowed as she tried to think, before slapping her hand against the desk and reaching over to snatch her jacket from its hook upon the bedpost. Rummaging through the pockets Sarah pulled out the well-folded research paper that had first come to her attention days ago, and retreated back to the bed.

Pulling the covers back over her legs, she turned her attention to the words and looked for the meaning she felt sure was there.

Corporal Derek Reese frowned and took his eyes from the rifle sight long enough to glance at the watch on his wrist. A full two hours since the initial intruder alarm and his tangle with an infiltrating Skinjob, and almost an hour and a half spent dug-in outside the main pressure door which marked the only way to the power generators for Serenity Point. Despite reflexes honed through brutal training and brutal live-action, he would be amongst the first to admit that sitting and waiting for the enemy to come to him was an almost alien concept. Sitting and waiting for over two hours for the enemy to come to him was beyond his understanding, and for the first time since he had felt Razak haul him out of the mud face-first, Derek felt nervousness begin to gnaw at the pit of his stomach.

"Twenty-three hundred hours check in - no enemy contact in front trenches," Came the report and the burst of static that forced the corporal to wince at his earpiece. Blowing out his breath with a puff of his cheeks he allowed his thoughts to drift to Allison - Ally - manning the infirmary and helping with the evacuation.

Even if moonshine and rations had conspired to muddle his brain slightly he knew he'd very much like to see her again. She was bubbly, beautiful and put him at ease in a way Derek thought no longer possible. Nerves shredded by sentient machines that could attack by land, sea and air did not make it easy to enjoy a good (military) meal or a quiet drink with a stunning woman.

He gave a silent thanks that whenever the machines struck Serenity Point, it would be through here and the Infirmary, shielded by its location in the rear, would be well placed until the evacuation was completed.

The shrill burst of static that indicated an opening channel pulled Derek's attention back to the present. He narrowed his eyes expecting another status report, instead hearing the loud thud-thud-thud of a pulse rifle firing on full automatic. Several moments of scratchy silence followed before the same thud-thud-thud was permeated by a scream of blind panic, and agony.

"How the fuck? How the fuck? Where's the alarms? The alarms! How the fuck did they get in?--"

Derek did not need any more information and was across to the nearest alarm box a short walk from his impromptu barricade. Plunging his fist against the wide pad the corporal was rewarded by the wailing of the alert siren which still pulsed loudly even through his sealed helmet. Warning lights cast ruddy red glows through grilles and baffles against the corridor walls.

Setting off in a sprint with his weapon armed and ready, Derek suppressed the fear which rose inside the claustrophobic confines of the armour which itself made it difficult to pass two-abreast in the corridors - not that he could see a single soul as he made his way through the maze which linked this section to the Front Trenches.

He frowned as he watched a group of six soldiers emerge from an intersection leading towards the Trenches and move away deeper into the complex at running pace. Pausing at the same junction he caught sight of a straggler making up ground and brought him to a halt with a hand on the shoulder. "What's going on?"

"Metal in the Infirmary," The older man snarled, gesturing with his weapon towards a generic corridor. "Motherfucking toasters flanked us - moving in through the Medical Wing."

Derek was already running before the other man had gotten as far as the insult - the pounding of his boots on the deck and the pounding of his heart in his chest merging into one powerful beat which urged him onwards, urged him forwards as quickly as he could move.

The chattering of pulse rifles discharging wildly mingled with the screams of dying men, and Derek came to miss the piercing wail of the alarm which for whatever reason, or malfunction, had stopped screaming minutes before. Absent-mindedly rubbing his gauntlets on his thigh as if it would somehow rub the sweat underneath his armour off, he stalked forwards purposefully.

A shadow following across the corner ahead of him brought the muzzle of his weapon up instantly and a finger lightly pressed against the trigger. Derek sighed in relief as the bedraggled, painfully thin arms of an old woman rose upwards as if to placate his aim as she shuffled into view. He opened his mouth but got no further than forming the words on his tongue when a young girl - barely five years old - fixed her blue eyes on him, from the comfort of her mother's chest as the pair sprinted past the old woman and screeched to a halt.

The corporal barely had the time to register the new arrival when more came into view - the young and the old, the sick and the lame and the panicked and calm. Families huddled together and those that had lost everything beginning to pack the corridor with their numbers, shouts rising from around the corner interrupted by the occasional thud-thud-thud of a weapon discharge.

Unable to see the armed soldier from their vantage point further back the throng began to push forwards against those at the front who were still unwilling to take a step towards the weapon readied, but not aimed in their direction.

"Move through!" Derek bellowed as he saw the crush that was in danger of forming, gesturing with a free hand and lowering his rifle to his side. As if the starter's gun had sounded the burgeoning crowd burst forwards, forcing him to fling himself against the wall to avoid being swept forward with the panic. The first few evacuees made a conscious effort to round him but soon he was forced to grab the steam pipes running above his head to keep a stable footing.

The thud-thud-thud booming over the crowd did a fine job of motivating the chase and almost as quickly as they had appeared, Derek was left alone in a corridor littered with abandoned personal possessions, forgotten trinkets and the occasional teddy bear or stuffed animal that continued to offer a stitched smile.

The winding sections of corridor ahead were misleading - only the odd piece of clothing, or slipped shoe indicated anything was amiss and if Derek had not already seen the carnage for himself he might almost have thought this was a false alarm, not the life-or-death struggle of man against machine. The sound of gunfire grew louder and almost continuous but the screams and shouts died - the hum of the strip lighting overhead the only accompaniment to the death being dished out.

Derek's eyes did not catch the flash of silver until his fingers had squeezed around the trigger and unleashed a stream of cobalt pulses, which super-heated the air and filled the corridor with a tremendous roar that rolled against the walls and the target. The Terminator's endoskeleton glowed to a burning white for the briefest of seconds, before bending out of shape and ultimately spilling out of its structure like treacle from a pot's lip. The machine's silver skull lolled to the side in spasm, its sensitive innards turned to molten goo and dribbled to the floor so that Derek could see straight through the machine's chest.

Not satisfied Derek stepped forward and drove the butt of his rifle up under the Terminator's chin, causing the head to snap back and the machine to tip backwards and to the floor with a clatter. Giving the twitching body a swift kick, the corporal glanced at the weapon magazine and rounded the corner a little too quickly, so that not even his fingers were fast enough to react to the hand which drove itself against his breastbone.

His lungs were emptied by a combination of the blow and of the wall he was driven against, pain radiating through his arms and legs to fingertips and toes, as gravity pulled his heavy body to the floor with a thud. Derek forced his eyes open to watch his pulse rifle clatter to the ground from his numb hand, and the bare endoskeleton - with teeth twisted into a permanent, maniacal grin and burning red eyes - walk towards him as if it had all the time in the world to kill. Literally.

A thick fog of confusion settling over his mind the corporal absent-mindedly tried to focus on the corpses lining both sides of the corridor ahead, noting the dark green armour - torn in some places, shattered in others or simply missing - identified them as belonging to the service, and fellow soldiers. His vision threatened to blur totally and he could not see their faces, although most were obscured behind shattered helmet visors painted red from the inside.

"Fuck you …" He managed to choke out as the Terminator stooped to pick up his weapon. Derek gritted his teeth in sudden pain, as a blinding flash barely a foot away spilled tiny shards of burning metal against his flesh - motivating his heavy arms to brush the red-hot embers away. Peering through narrowed eyes saw that the Terminator now stood on a single leg - the other blown off below the knee and leaving only a blackened, twisted mess of burnt wiring and shredded actuators. Already stooped over to pick up his weapon the machine was unbalanced and crashed to the floor, even as Derek instinctively rolled to the side and grabbed the butt of the pulse rifle. A strong hand took a hold of the back of his neck - a vice-like grip from which there could be no escape and agony tore through him as pressure built on his vertebrae.

Multi-coloured spots began to swim across his vision as he felt his neck and head become numb. Desperately he pulled the weapon forward, feeling the tingling beginning to spread down his arms so that even with the rifle under his chest, the corporal struggled to lift it up from the ground. With a final grunt of effort Derek wheeled the muzzle over his own head and groped for the trigger, satisfied at the pain of the close-range blasts as they seared his armoured back.

An electronic two-tone chime sounded as he continued to push the trigger down, indicating an exhausted magazine. Strength spent he allowed the weapon to tumble free from his grip and was rewarded with his vision clearing, and his head drooping forwards to fall upon his arms spread out on the ground. He took several shuddering breaths.

"I thought I told you to man the power generator …" A weak voice rasped from amongst the corpses. Shaking his head as if to clear the confusion, Derek struggled to his knees, and then gingerly to his feet. Stumbling forwards as he examined each of the corpses and found no signs of life he was more than halfway towards the bulkhead when a cough pulled his attention back. Quietening his own breathing as best he could, Derek followed the wheezing and pulling the clasps which secured a cracked helmet to the armour below.

"I thought I gave you an order Rookie," Razak repeated, his eyes glassy and unable to focus. He coughed loudly, a thin trickle of red leaking from the corner of his mouth. "Not that it matters I suppose … You can't ever predict them. Sly bastards …"

Derek fumbled for the medical kit still held in the hands of a corpse laying face-down beside the pair, before a weak gauntleted hand batted the box away. "They came in through Medical … Never saw that coming. We managed to hold them long enough. Stipe and the patients are gone. Everyone should be gone …"

He laid a hand on the young man's shoulder and nodded. "You need to lead them back to Serrano, Rookie. They're civilians, not soldiers … Not fighters. I even saw one girl with hair straighteners …"

A chuckle from the older man's lips quickly degenerated into body-wracking coughs. "You've got to get out of here and back up the line before they end up walking straight to Skynet's gates. Civilians are stupid enough when they're not terrified …"

"I'm just a corporal," Derek replied with a mutter, shaking his head. Razak managed a second chuckle-turned-cough and gestured around the corridor.

"Take a look around you rookie," He said with sarcasm. "The entire command squad is dead - most of the grunts that are left with the civvies are the enlisted - knuckle draggers like yourself."

Razak reached a hand across his chest and groped for the rank insignia attached by Velcro to his shoulder armour. Tearing it free, the veteran offered his charge a weak smile and slapped the symbol haphazardly over the corporal's bare pad. "By the authority vested in me in times of war …"

His words descended into painful coughs and gasps for breath before a look of intense concentration hardened his features. "By the authority vested in me by the great John Connor and a bunch of articles of war nobody can remember, I award you a battlefield promotion to the rank of Captain with all the shit and stress therein.

"Congratulations sir," Razak added with a weak salute. His eyes followed the direction of Derek's to the bulkhead marked INFIRMARY and with a concerted grunt of effort he sat forward, placing both hands on the younger man's shoulders.

"They took her," He said with a sorrowful sigh. "She was doping up the Intensive Care patients - the ones who were too ill or too slow to move out with us when they broke straight through the wall, like it was made of paper and not steel. They didn't stop to take anyone else - they killed everyone they could find."

Derek nodded and with a glance at the twisted door made off to leave, the hands on his shoulders tightening his grip and keeping him still. "Don't be a fool, rookie. If they were still here do you think you'd have gotten anywhere near the door and only met two of the bastards for the price?

"I didn't give you this promotion so you could charge off through a hole in the wall and take on an invasion force. I didn't make you a Captain so you could secure a grander military funeral with whatever personnel affects you left in your locker at Serrano. You're going to lead the civvies back to base and then you're going to carry on doing what you do best - surviving."

Razak could see by the tightening of Derek's jaw and the narrowing of his pained eyes that the former corporal was only paying lip service to his words. Taking a hand from his shoulder the old man clamped it down on Derek's head and pushed it forwards so they were only a few inches apart nose-to-nose.

"Listen to me rookie," He whispered harshly. "If they've taken her then they haven't killed her. If they haven't killed her then that means she's still alive, and that means one day, maybe - just maybe - if you avoid any superhero last stands or martyrdom you might just live long enough to see her again. Hell you might be the one that rescues her …

"But that day isn't today. She'll be on a Hunter-Killer Transport, and those HKTs never operate alone. Dozens of the metal bastards, tanks, Skinjobs and a few artillery pieces against you and your trusty pulse rifle. Grant an old man his dying wish and follow your orders for once in your life.

"You will escort the civilians to Serrano Point," Razak repeats in as firm and formal a military tone as he can muster. "You will report to Major Reizeger for debriefing. You will complete your mission, do you get me, Captain?"

Derek studied the intensity in Razak's gaze which he knew only reflected the same level of commitment in his own eyes. The logic was clear - Allison was long gone; chained like an animal, herded aboard an armoured transport bristling with devastating weaponry and guarded by mobile, swift Hunter-Killers and an entire brigade of metal murderers on foot. All he could offer her now was his own death in her name.

He almost felt it would be worth it. He almost felt that the sacrifice would still mean something - anything, to someone.

But the words of his former superior officer rang true, and he could not help but be reminded that dozens of lives now hung perilously in the balance on the long, gruelling trek back to Serrano Point. Without his input, without his gun and his wits, they might never live to see the twin cooling towers of a nuclear home.

Derek could see that the trickle of blood from the older man's mouth had become a river, overflowing the lip and spilling down the chin. Razak grunted in pain, and shifted to his side as his eyelids began to grow heavy, and his eyes dilated and glassy. The strong grip of the fingers on Derek's shoulder lessened as the hand slid off and down to his side.

"What are you waiting for Captain?" Razak asked with a bare whisper, his chest labouring to rise with each passing second. "You have your orders. On the bounce …"

His eyes fluttered closed for a moment, which stretched to a second, and then a minute. They did not open again.

Derek climbed to his feet, taking Razak's rifle to replace his own. Sucking in a lungful of air and casting a final glance at the doorway which would remain closed to him, the Captain clenched his free hand together in a fist. He would see her again, one day. Until he knew otherwise and until he stared at her lifeless eyes and pale, clammy skin he would never stop believing she survived. Whatever it would take, for however long it would take - he would see her again.

He channelled his fury into a single kick at the remains of the silver skull of the Terminator he had dispatched earlier - tearing the lower jaw and not much else from the neck to clatter against the far wall and spin like a top.

He swore that every single one of their kind would pay for this moment of helplessness.

Derek's eyes snapped open, before his mind had even returned from the waking dream that had haunted him relentlessly whenever he slept. His fingers curled around the barrel of the shotgun held in his lap reflexively, the muzzle swinging upwards as he acted purely on an instinct honed from years of battle, his conscious mind still in the process of waking.

The walls of Serenity Point were no more - gone was the harsh white paint, bundles of piping and wiring held by gantries bolted to the steel beams supporting the ceiling and the hundred of tons of earth above. Instead wallpapered walls marked by a rail of polished oak ran around the room, dominated by a television as black as the night which twinkled through the single bay window and a wooden table topped with a number of empty beer bottles, flanked by a chair opposite the one he sat in.

His eyes travelled down to the floor, and the beautiful face which stared back up at him. "Ally?"

Cameron's HUD flashed constantly with circuit diagrams and system pathways being rerouted and tested for functionality, so that just to look up at the glassy stare of Derek Reese took a conscious effort and energy. As advanced a computer as she was, the Terminator still had a limit to the number of operations per second her Chip could perform and now that precious runtime was being consumed by self-repair and diagnostic systems.

Despite her best efforts there was no response from any of her actuators or motivators below the waist, limiting her to crawling forward with nothing more than her own arms.

Derek shook his head as if the overindulgence of alcohol and sorrow could be dismissed with a shake. His face twisted from passive to frown as he came to fully realise that the woman at his feet was both exactly who she appeared to be, and as alien to him as was possible. He cocked the shotgun and stooped down, pressing the double-barrel against Cameron's temple.

"I really thought I'd seen the last of you," He said with a hint of sadness quickly overridden by the temper beginning to build. "I thought you'd finally done something half-decent and given us the time we need to move on. John, Sarah and me - move somewhere else and start all this again."

He pushed the muzzle further against the skin, his teeth baring in a menacing scowl. "I suppose deep down I knew you'd be back. Metal always comes back unless you break it into tiny pieces or you burn it into nothing. Not like us, when we die, it's over.

"I want you to tell me something," he said after a moment's silence. "When did you first see my face?"

Cameron struggled to understand the question as even Derek's voice was scratchy, and faded. Her normally lightning-fast reaction times slowed to a virtual crawl and her "mind" almost entirely preoccupied on the mere task of remaining functional so that only a very small percentage of her intellect could be spared for a question and answer session.

"Escape and Evasion," Cameron replied in a tinny, echoing voice which was obviously mechanical in origin. "Sarah took you from prison … You almost died. You were a security risk …"

Her left eye winced in spasm, pushing her entire face left then right. "I told Sarah it was not the right thing to do. She said the wrong thing was sometimes the right thing to do. I did not understand …"

The Terminator pushed herself up slightly. "I understand now."

"You don't remember me in the future? Before you were reprogrammed?" Derek's tone was inquisitive but lost none of the anger as he pushed the host gun harder against Cameron's flesh so that circular depressions formed in the skin. "I swear I'll blow your fucking chip into orbit if you lie to me …"

Cameron's delicate balance was lost and the Terminator abruptly fell back to the floor, the fingers of her hand forming a fist and splaying outwards alternately. Still her gaze never left the man who stood poised to destroy her in a moment of total weakness on her part, and with some effort she directed enough of her runtime to form the words that were not only the truth, but the only way to avoid destruction.


For a moment this did not seem to be the only way to avoid destruction as Derek's finger began to press against the trigger, and his left hand came up to support the barrel as he steadied the gun's aim. Teeth gritted together, a mad dance seemed to play out in his eyes between what he wanted more than anything in the world, and what the world wanted more than anything from him.

With a loud snap he opened the shotgun's breech and emptied the shells out onto the floor. A look which summed up all of the utter contempt, hatred and fury he held for Skynet and its agents creasing his brow and setting his jaw, Derek dropped the impotent weapon to the ground and snatched the last bottle that contained a trace of liquid from the tabletop.

"Skynet got it wrong," He hissed bitterly, swigging the last of the fiery amber drink and relishing the burning sensation that washed down to his stomach. "You don't look anything like her."

Sarah's eyes flickered open expecting to squint against the bright sun but instead finding the curtains as dark as the twilight hour would expect. Rolling over to glance at the beside clock she sighed, sweeping the crumpled sheets of paper that had slipped from her hands when she had slipped into dreams and dragged herself out of bed.

Tugging at the back of her jogging trousers that had settled awkwardly, yawning widely and rubbing at the sleep crusted between her eyelids Sarah plodded down the staircase with heavy feet, a hand pushing against the banister as she stopped sharply at the sight of John's uncle - and her long since lost love's brother - cradling a shotgun and a virtually unblinking stare which seemed to bore through the wall.

Sarah followed his eyes - dark bags underneath suggesting he'd slept even more poorly than her - and settled on the figure resting on the floor up against the wall. "Cameron?"

The lithe machine made no movements, and as the older woman stepped forward to see through the shadows falling across the Terminators face, she could see that the piercing blue eyes that so defined her deceivingly delicate features stared ahead blankly, without focus.

Climbing down to her knees as if investigating a hole in a door, Sarah shuffled forwards and examined the Terminator. Aside from the scuffing which marked her clothing, only a few scratches across a cheek and a temple gave any indication that the diminutive machine had been flung against reinforced concrete walls and back.

"Cameron?" She tried again, with more firmness in her voice.

The Terminator's head cocked jerkily to the left, eyes slowly tracking around until they met Sarah's gaze. Her mouth opened and closed, jaw lowering and raising as if a fish pulled from the water and left to gulp uselessly. From over her shoulder Sarah could hear Derek scoff and storm up and out of the room towards the kitchen, shotgun still held in a single hand as if he might have cause to use it at any moment.

Cameron could see a shape in front of her, from the size and colour she deduced it to be another person but the image was so pixilated, so disrupted and scrambled that the Terminator had no hope of identifying who it was except to deduce that she had spoken to Derek - or more accurately he had spoken to her at the end of a gun - and so she must be "home".

"Sarah …" She said finally, the syllables stretched unnaturally. "You shouldn't be here. It's not safe."

The raven-haired woman resisted the urge to roll her eyes. "Where is safe?" She replied sarcastically, with the textbook response that declaring anything to be safe was a ridiculous concept when on the run from time-travelling mechanical agents of a sentient super-computer. "We're moving out in a few hours, probably to the Lighthouse on the coast … How did you put Cromartie away?"

"He disabled me," Cameron replied awkwardly, her head jerking to the right. "I'm not designed to fight other machines."

Sarah frowned, pushing backwards to sit on the floor and brush a lock of hair behind her ear. She was never one to mince her words and the burning question she felt had to be asked demanded an answer. "Why didn't he kill you - take you down permanently?"

Cameron's eyes narrowed as her Chip completed a series of re-routes and restored some more detail to her vision - Sarah now recognisable as Sarah though still grainy and choppy as if a computer screen watched from a recording. "His mission is to kill John - he knows he is stronger, bigger than me."

"He doesn't see you as a threat," Sarah added with a pursing of her lips. "Or at least not a big enough threat to do more than knock you down if you interfere."

A series of red lines drew themselves on her HUD, indicating circuit failures and broken pathways, and causing her head to crane upwards towards the ceiling before jutting downwards to stare towards the floor. "He knocks hard," She deadpanned.

"You've looked better," Sarah admitted with a hint of cheekiness. "How long before you're fighting fit?"

As if to illustrate the answer, the image of Sarah disappeared to be replaced by numerous warning messages scrolling software codes that would take a mere Human - even an experienced programmer - months to decipher. To Cameron the meaning was clear and in the impeccable logic of the machine there was only one course of action to take, only one possible solution.

"I can't be fixed; I'm broken like the clock," She summarised, seeing the look of confusion at the oblique reference. "I broke the clock in the hall … I was trying to fix it. You always check it in the morning."

"John's pretty handy with a screwdriver," Sarah half-joked, half-reassured. From a purely logical point of view and from the point of the mission to keep her beloved son alive, the loss of Cameron would be devastating. For all her determination and cunning, and for all Derek's experience and grit they were Human - mortal and frail. Cameron could withstand devastating impacts and attacks and stride through the fire or dust they kicked up. Without her durability and toughness, the weight on the end of the single strand of fate that gave John a chance of growing up crept to breaking point.

But logic was the sole motivation of the machines, not Humankind and Sarah relied on gut feeling as much as the bare facts. While her head maintained that Cameron's survival was vital for the mission, her gut generated a number of feelings all of which made her extremely uncomfortable. Her gut maintained that there was more to her survival than the mission alone - that as part of their "family" Cameron had endured the highs of simply surviving and the lows of losing the Turk. Quite apart from the fact that Cameron had directly and undeniably saved her life. She didn't like owing favours.

Sarah had watched a machine that had initially seemed no more "Human" than the T-101 of years now decades passed, experiment with slang, fashion and hobbies. More than once she had even almost forgotten that the Terminator was anything but a young, attractive girl with a bright future ahead.

Her gut went further, suggesting feelings that passed even beyond this. Sarah swiftly and brutally suppressed them.

"John might be able to help," She offered weakly, knowing full well that if Cameron felt she could contribute to protecting John, they would not be having this discussion. The Terminator allowed her head to rest against the wall and for the briefest moment the older woman would have sworn Cameron looked tired.

"Don't tell John I came home," She urged, lifting her head back up from the wall. "If he finds out I am broken he will try to fix me. He won't be able to and it will affect him. It is better if he thinks Cromartie killed me and I never came home."

Sarah opened her mouth to argue, to rebuke the Terminator and to stand and call her son down from his precious sleep with his tool kit in hand. The words were devastatingly true, and she knew her son's intense loyalty to those around him would drive him to try and repair the unrepairable and fix the impossibly broken. A vicious circle that would only hurt him, and by proxy the entire future of the Human Race.

She nodded slowly, hating the logic but accepting the truth. Tilting her head slightly she found the face of Derek staring back, weapon still in hand. His face an unreadable mask of pain, anger and other swirling emotions. Somehow Sarah knew there to be a story she had not read between them, and at the same time knew it would never be known.

"Take my Chip out," Cameron ordered, her eyes fixed on the double-barrel of the shotgun. "Quickly - before John wakes up. He will sleep in today because we don't have any Pop Tarts."

"He doesn't like chocolate," She clarified as Sarah climbed to her feet and over to the table and the tool kit which was more often used for weapon maintenance than surgery. Roughly opening the case and almost unwilling to look at the blades, she snatched up a pointed knife and reluctantly returned to the floor in front of Cameron.

The Terminator nodded as best she could, her hands jerkily moving upwards to sweep her hair away from the thin covering of flesh that hid access to her CPU beneath. Sarah held the knife at the very end of the handle, blade tipped upwards as if the tool itself was somehow offensive. The older woman glanced up at Derek, a questioning look in her tired eyes.

"I can't," He said with a shake of his head. "Don't ask me to explain, Sarah … I can't cut her open."

Sighing and running a hand through his hair, he placed the shotgun on the tabletop and leaned against the counter, his eyes fixed on the weapon and nothing else. Shoulders slumping Derek snatched his coat from the hook opposite the door and pulled the thick jacket over his shoulders. "I'll start loading the truck."

With a click the door closed behind him and Sarah was left alone, blade in hand.

"Make an incision two inches above my right ear in line with my hairline," Cameron said helpfully. Sarah reluctantly leaned forward, cradling the Terminator's head carefully in her hands. The took a firm hold of the handle of the knife, the blade pointing downwards towards the dark brown curls and tangles which spilled over on to Cameron's shoulders. Her eyes moved away from aiming to the sheen of sweat that covered the machine's forehead and temples.

Almost subconsciously Sarah moved her left hand down slightly, her fingers pressing gently against Cameron's temple so she could feel the slickness of the perspiration. Her mind attempting to keep her on track and focused, marvelled at just how much trouble Skynet had gone in mimicking Humanity. Her gut refused to be ignored and desperately screamed that machines don't sweat.

Feeling her own eyes begin to sting with beads of sweat travelling down from her forehead, Sarah rubbed the base of her palm across her face and exhaled slowly as she brought the tip of the blade downwards, through Cameron's hair. Watching the contrast of pale flesh with sharp silver and feeling her resolve beginning to waiver, Sarah pushed the knife into the skin.

A sharp gasp from below and a slight jerk of the head saw Sarah pull the knife free and cast it to the floor as if the handle were molten and burning hot. Cupping Cameron's chin the older woman firmly so they both saw eye-to-eye. "You felt pain, didn't you?"

Cameron was at a loss to explain. The interface between her biological tissue and her cybernetic systems included a feedback sensor - not pain, but an appropriate way for her to be aware of damage to her flesh and act to stop it, or repair it. When her flesh had been cut by the blade the feedback sensor had worked as it was designed to do, but instead of merely alerting her, it replicated the pain of a wound like any man, woman or child on any of the Earth's continents might experience.

"I don't know …" She said finally. "It shouldn't work like that. I'm broken."

Sarah knew the moment she had cast the knife to the carpet that there would be no way to complete the grisly procedure, and that if Derek and herself could not do it then it would not be done. She did not trust anybody else bar John and it would be better for everyone concerned that he was not involved.

The thud of feet on the floor above broke her concentration.

"John is getting up early," Cameron observed. "Don't let him see me."

Sarah groaned, climbing up to her feet and taking a hurried glance around as if a trapdoor leading to a Terminator-sized holding cell might have been installed under her feet recently. Scratching her head and trying to ignore the padding of her son upstairs, she stooped down and hooked her arms underneath Cameron's legs at the knee, and around the back underneath her shoulders.

Her own legs threatened to buckle under the weight of the Terminator, as Sarah struggled to lift the unbelievably heavy weight that was somehow compressed to fit into Cameron's lithe frame. Taking one heavy step after another and narrowly missing the kitchen doorway with the head of the heavy girl, Sarah unsteadily made her slow way out of the house.

The short distance to the Garage seemed a marathon as she felt her hamstrings tremble and her forearms grow heavy and numb. Boasting a considerable amount of muscle and strength on her own athletic frame, Sarah nonetheless almost succeeded in dropping Cameron as she span to avoid a broken branch on the driveway.

Panting heavily, Sarah pushed open the Garage door and stumbled inside. Finding her knees unwilling to bend forwards, she nudged a mattress leaning up against the wall with her thigh and closed her eyes tightly at the thick cloud of choking dust that was kicked up as it tipped to the floor. In a soft fall rather than an any coordinated bend Sarah brought Cameron down to the mattress, rolling on to the floor to stare up at the timber roof beams and try to get her breath back.

Cameron cocked her head to the side to glance at Sarah. "I will wait here."

The older woman rolled her eyes and climbed back to her feet, stretching her legs and back to try and restore some feeling to the joints which had been pushed hard carrying a girl that seemed to weigh as if she had been made out of metal. And was.

"Don't go anywhere," Sarah replied flippantly as she pulled the Garage door closed and quickly made her way back across the garden, into the kitchen and almost straight into her son. Still dressed in the same T-shirt from the night before and clutching an empty jar of peanut butter, he was locked in a life-or-death struggle to find enough on the end of the knife to spread on a piece of bread.

He glanced up, a faint smile on his lips. "Any sign of her?"

Sarah swiftly suppressed the urge to glance in any direction save the one in front, suddenly becoming keenly aware of how tired she looked and the sheen of sweat plastering her upper arms and face. She shook her head as casually as she could, crossing over to fill the kettle at the sink.

"Been in the Garage?" He asked, gesturing to the thick patterns of dust staining her clothes. He rolled up the bread and stuffed it into this mouth, turning to put the empty jar back in the fridge.

Using her motherly skills to her advantage to divert his attention, she snatched the jar out of his hand with a pointed glance and dropped it into the bin, shrugging her shoulders slightly. "Just checking through boxes - making sure we don't leave anything behind."

"There's still a lot of notes from the resistance," She added, instantly regretting the turn of phrase and hoping her explanation would be enough. "Derek's loading up the truck now - Get dressed and give him a hand."

John opened his mouth as if to argue despite it still being stuffed with peanut butter, before shrugging and wandering back through to the living room. Sarah followed closely behind, her eyes instantly fixing on the bloody knife abandoned on the carpet. Stretching a leg across she brought her foot down to cover the blade just as her son turned to face her. "She might still be alive …"

"I know," Sarah offered with a reassuring nod. Her senses prickled at the thought of such a bare-faced lie, told to the honest and slightly pained features of her son and she turned away - it was all she could do to keep her composure.

to load only the bare essentials - which meant guns and ammunition - and empty the house of anything that might either incriminate them or give a clue as to where they were heading. Having convinced John to go on ahead with Derek under the belief that she was giving Cameron a little longer to reappear, Sarah glanced at the Terminator sat in the passenger seat.

Climbing into the car and gunning the engine which roared to life after a few moments of cycling, Sarah reached into the back-seat and produced a pair of faded pink ballet shoes, dropping them into her passenger's lap and pulling the seatbelt across her shoulders. Shifting the car into gear and beginning to roll over the crunching stones of the driveway, she spared a last glance at their "home" through the rear-view mirror.

The word was almost ridiculous to apply to anywhere for the Connors; in the conventional sense a home was your permanent retreat from the world, where you felt safe and felt in total control of everything within the four walls. Where you would retreat but no further. Constantly on the move, constantly on the run Sarah had come to regard any four walls as a chance to box her in and make it that little bit easier for Skynet or its agents to find her, or John, and kill them.

From a military point of view a home was only a base of operations and in that definition, perhaps, the house that rapidly disappeared from view could be home.

Cameron placed her hands on top of the shoes in her lap. "You don't like lying to John. Sometimes you have to lie."

"I don't like lying to my son," Sarah replied with a tinge of irritation. "But you're right, sometimes we have to and this time, we have to." The car's engine roared as the accelerator pushed down towards the floor to match the speed of the traffic hurtling along the highway which led towards the coast. Rolling brown hills stretching for miles across featureless terrain left little to stare at, and even less to interest.

Cameron glanced across at Sarah, watching the older woman focus on the road ahead. She opened her window slightly, and slowly, very gingerly raised her hand so that her fingers pushed outside into the air stream which thundered past the speeding vehicle. Her eyes closed as she felt the cold wind tickle her flesh and chill it.

"You can feel that?" Sarah asked as she pulled a pair of black sunglasses from the glove box and slipped them on.

Cameron didn't open her eyes, instead feeling her Chip delegate the damage control and system repair to a lesser unit and devote itself fully to the moment. Pulling her hand inside, she ran the fingers of her other hand across the goosebumps and studied the rosy-red hue of the chilled skin. "I can feel. I wouldn't be much use if I couldn't feel."

Sarah spared a glance at the hand and felt the truth of the fundamental change of the Terminator's existence. It was so obvious to the older woman now, so undeniable and what more proof could be needed than flesh that turned red when cold, or prickled with goosebumps?

"How long has it been?" She asked, earning a cock of the head from her passenger. "How long has it been since you stopped emulating and started replicating emotions?" She clarified. "I'm not just imagining it, Am I? Or are you just doing an amazing job of being very awkwardly Human?"

Cameron flexed her hand as the skin regained its pale pallor. "I'm broken," She said simply. "Things aren't working properly."

"Seems to me Skynet did a little too good a job," Sarah countered with a shake of her head. "All the other Terminators were designed to look Human to some degree. Some were better than others, but none of them could pass as one of us for very long. Too stiff, too programmed. They certainly wouldn't enjoy Ballet …

Sarah glanced at the ballet shoes Cameron had now gripped with her hands, "You enjoy Ballet, right? It's not just a way to serve the mission?"

The Terminator nodded, as if beginning to understand. "I dance because I want to."

"And when I cut you? You felt pain. Not some skin feedback sensor, but real honest-to-god pain. It's important for us - reminds us we're fragile and we can hurt but it doesn't make any sense for a machine. It's not logical. And you operate on ones and zeroes, back or white …"

Cameron flexed her fingers, staring at her palms. "Not any more. I'm grey."

"You're a machine that was designed to imitate a Human more closely than anything that came before you," Sarah added. "You were given the most sophisticated tools - skin that sweats, that bleeds and turns red when you're cold and anything else. It stands to reason that the more able you are to act Human the closer you might come to being Human."

Cameron tucked a lock of dark brown hair behind her ear, watching through her window as a dark blue sports car abruptly pulled out into the other lane with a roar of its high-tuned engine, accelerating past them and swinging back into the right-hand lane with the slightest squeal of rubber. "Derek doesn't agree. He doesn't see me any differently to Cromartie."

"Derek's from a different time," Sarah ignored the irony of the double-meaning. "He's fought a brutal war in the most simple terms for decades - if it sweats and breathes it's one of yours, and if it doesn't you kill it. Metal versus Skin, Machine against Man. He's still fighting the war, he's still a soldier and all the training and experience of his life urges him to kill anything that's not Human."

"I've had my fair share of run-ins with Skynet," She continued. "I've also had my life saved directly or indirectly by a machine more times than I'd like to remember. If it wasn't for a Terminator given a new lease of life I'd be long dead, and John would either never have been born, or would never have lived to see sixteen."

Cameron nodded, her eyes fixed on the road ahead. "Is that why you won't Terminate me?"

"I'm not a big fan of digging inside anyone's head, man or machine," She shrugged. "But if it's really possible for your kind to become self-aware it could be more devastating to Skynet than any normal weapon."

Neither women were much willing to consider the more immediate question of just how fugitives from the law, and the future itself, could remain on the run with a paralysed Terminator in tow - Sarah because she was still trying to work out how she would explain her passenger's reappearance to her son, and Cameron because the same phrase repeated throughout her consciousness.

She was replicating, not emulating.

Turning away from the main highway to follow a narrow road cracked with tarmac stretching in the summer and contracting in the winter, they left the bustling traffic behind. Peeking above the rolling hills as a ribbon of blue above the brown, the water was barely visible against the horizon, somewhere against its coast the Lighthouse where John and Derek were already waiting.

Sarah gunned the car's engine, taking advantage of the considerable gap behind the blue sports car barrelling over the crest of a hill ahead towards the sea. The needle of the speedometer crept above sixty, every imperfection and dent in the road transmitting through the suspension to rock the car up and down.

She glanced across at Cameron, and the ballet shoes still being cradled in her lap. When her eyes moved back to the road it was only just in time to see the harsh red glare of braking lights and the rear of the blue sports car rapidly filling the windscreen. Sarah's foot drove the brake pedal to the floor with a thump that couldn't be heard above the screeching of the tyres as she wrenched the steering wheel hard left.

Sarah was conscious of the horizon tipping sideways towards the vertical, as the right-side tyres left the cracked tarmac and span uselessly in the air. Front wheels still steering to the side the car passed its tipping point and crashed on to its side; the scream of metal grating against the road fighting the sound of the fracturing drive shaft in a deafening cacophony.

Teeth gritted together as her centre of gravity moved from her legs to her head, Sarah could feel the blood quickly pooling and sweeping her consciousness with a debilitating ache. The seatbelt cut into her chest and stomach as it tightened and kept her body in the seat which was rapidly being crushed against her back. Her skull smashed against the headrest and for a moment her vision blurred.

Windows shattering under the impact, it took all of Sarah's remaining energy to keep her arms and body away from the smoking tarmac which sparked and screeched a few inches from her shoulder. Still travelling at speed and twisting the car rolled once again so that it skidded upon its roof, careening off the side of the road before ploughing into a grassy bank - a plume of dirt and stones thrown high into the air as the roar of the engine died to a spluttering, whirring grumble as components snapped or hit each other and failed.

A thick pall of smoke coiled upwards lazily into the clear blue sky above.

Sarah grunted, her eyes opening and immediately closing as something hot and slick blinded them. Lifting her arms weakly she wiped them clear, glancing at her blood-smeared palms and then at the devastation surrounding her. Seatbelt still pinning her to the seat, her head only a few inches from the caved-in roof of the upturned car, she was conscious of a half-dozen aches and pains radiating through her body.

Craning her neck to the side she made out the form of Cameron crumpled on the roof - her seatbelt sheared in two having not been designed to restrict loads as heavy as the Terminator in high-speed crashes. Her entire body was bent at the waist so that she was almost folded in half - a position that no Human Being could survive. From her position, Sarah was not sure it was a position a Terminator could survive either.

"Cameron?" She groaned, feeling a thumping pain spread through her head. Bracing herself with a hand against the roof Sarah groped for the release catch of her seatbelt, but found no amount of pressure on the button would release the lock. She guessed the belt being under torsion was pulling the catch in such a way that it could not slip free.

As she shifted position to take some of her weight off of the seatbelt, her eyes drifted to the wing mirror, and the shattered panes of glass that now resembled the compound eye of a fly. Sarah's eyes widened as each of the shards reflected a pair of legs methodically walking towards the car.

"Cameron!" She whispered urgently but had barely the time to look in the Terminator's direction, before the shearing of metal and rubber saw the driver's side door torn from its hinges effortlessly, thrown up into the air and down onto the grassy bank with a soft thud. A strong hand thrust into the car, taking a hold of the seatbelt and tearing it from its mounting. Sarah fell to the roof of the car, elbows banging against the metal painfully before she a strong grip on her back, hauling her out of the car in a single fluid motion.

Sarah rolled on to her back, her legs suddenly turning to rubber and her vision spinning as her blood rushed back below her waist. She pushed herself to sit up with a grunt and almost drove her nose into the muzzle of a pistol pointed in the dead centre of her face. Following the hand, the arm and the shoulder of the wielder her heart sank as she took in the features of her saviour turned hostage-taker.

Cromartie cocked his head to the side, glancing at the car and then the woman on the roadside. "Are you injured, Sarah Connor?"

"Why the hell does that matter!" She snarled, pushing herself up to standing and cradling the pit of her stomach where the seatbelt had cut particularly hard across it. "Nothings changed - I'm not going to help you. I said I'd die before I'd help you, and I will. You'd be better off shooting me now."

The T-888's eyes studied the raven-haired woman carefully, before moving to the car and back again. His thumb crept up the gun and flicked the safety on, before lowering his arm and the aim of the weapon on Sarah's face. "That will not be necessary. I need your assistance in another matter, Sarah Connor."

Her lips split apart in a grin of absurdity, rather than humour. She threw her hands upwards, shrugging her shoulders. "You've been chasing my family relentlessly for months - you've tried to kidnap me twice, and having just run me off the road all in the name of killing my son so he doesn't grow up to kill you … You need my help?"

"Correct," He replied, striding around the side of the car and promptly tearing the passenger door from its mounting and discarding it casually. With a single powerful pull he dragged Cameron clear of the wreckage and placed her down on the roadside, his brow furrowing in confusion. "She is damaged - this will complicate matters."

Cameron's HUD fizzled into life from the blackness of cybernetic oblivion; the picture monochrome, unstable and scrolling. She did not need colours or stability to identify Cromartie as he hovered over her and her hand thrust upwards towards the larger Terminator's throat.

Cromartie's superior reflexes seized the hand before it had travelled halfway towards its objective, holding it in place easily and ignoring the whine of her actuators being pushed beyond their limits. Reasoning that it would do their situation no good for Cameron to lose her arm, Sarah limped around the car, feeling her stomach becoming tender and bruised with every passing minute.

She stooped to the road carefully, wincing. The strain of the smaller Terminator trying to fight the larger T-888's grip could be heard as a high-pitched whine which filled the air and hurt the ear. "Give it up Cameron … I think he's got our attention."

The whine died as Cameron withdrew her arm, her head cocking to face Sarah with a questioning glance. The older woman shrugged her shoulders, "You can't walk, I can't run and he has a gun."

"Thank you for explaining," She replied, arms by her side and prostrate as if she had just been lifted from an Egyptian sarcophagus.

"Skynet is here," Cromartie interrupted from his tall vantage point, his eyes scanning the featureless terrain surrounding and tracking any and all perceived threats. His blank, neutral look was a stark contrast to the tight jaw and creased forehead that marred Sarah's face as she climbed to her feet. A million questions poured forth from her mind; How? Why? When? And a multitude in-between.

"The future is no longer certain," The T-888 continued as if pre-empting Sarah's questions. "There are too many variables, too many agents both for and against Skynet that are making it impossible to predict the course of things. The Human Element has grown stronger, if limited in numbers and is now in a position to foil further temporal excursions.

"Skynet now believes it is highly unlikely that it will succeed in Terminating John Connor. The level of protection both now, in the present, and in the future make it virtually impossible. Skynet has therefore devised a new tactic."

Sarah felt the pain in her abdomen double, as the pit of her stomach twisted in anticipation of what was to come.

"Skynet had ordered that you, Sarah Connor, be Terminated. It believes that with your death, John Connor will suffer an emotional breakdown and will either be far easier to locate, and Terminate, or will never grow to become the threat he is to Skynet in the future."

Sarah sank down to the road, glancing up at the pistol still held at Cromartie's side. Realisation dawned on her that she had finally failed. She had spent so much of her time - so much of her life - making sure John was safe from harm, that she had never truly paused to think about the damage that could be done to her son through her. He might never see another gun until Judgement Day, but still be wounded as truly as if a bullet had struck him in the heart if something happened to her.

She was going to die, at the hands of Cromartie and with her the hope of her son, and the Human Race, would die with her.

"Skynet does not have the same faith in you that I do," The T-888 added after a pause long enough for Sarah to accept death with her head lowered, and then to snap up with accusing eyes struggling to hold back hot tears. "I believe it is more likely that your death will spur John Connor on to seek vengeance on Skynet and so make him even more dedicated to the cause of Humanity."

"Let me make sure I understand this," Sarah spat, her eyes narrowing and her body tensed dangerously. "Skynet thinks the best way to win is to kill my son. It thinks the best way to do this is to kill me. You think the best way to win is to kill my son, by capturing me so that you can kill John when he exposes himself to rescue me. Is that about the lay of it?"

Cromartie nodded, as if the ridiculousness of the situation was lost on him - which it was. "You are correct, Sarah Connor. My primary mission is still to terminate John Connor however, it is also my prerogative to act against anything that might endanger the success of that mission - I believe Skynet has made an error."

Sarah scoffed, earning a look of confusion from the T-888. "Skynet has never claimed to be perfect - I believe that is the exclusive claim of the Human Race."

"If what you're saying is true," She replied with a shrug, ignoring what almost seemed like sarcasm. "Why do you need me? Surely you're just putting me in the firing line and helping Skynet along."

"Skynet is using a T-X type Termination unit," Cromartie clarified. "It is a powerful model and I will not be able to defeat it without support."

Sarah gave the larger Terminator an incredulous look, as if he had failed to notice the devastation and chaos surrounding him. "I don't know if you've noticed but we're a little thin on the ground regarding reinforcements. Cameron can barely talk, let alone walk - you threw her against enough concrete walls to know that and I'm not exactly in peak condition either."

"I am capable of repairing a T-2000," Cromartie replied with his eyes glancing towards Cameron who had remained silent since her initial arm wrestling loss. "Skynet is coming for you, Sarah Connor. Your greatest chance of survival is with me. It is the logical choice."

"This is insane," Sarah said aloud to no-one in particular. Feeling nimble fingertips curling around her hand she glanced down to see Cameron's bright blue eyes boring into her own. "He's a security risk," She said in almost a whisper. "Don't trust him."

"I don't trust him," Sarah repeated truthfully. The raw facts of the matter were undeniable. If Skynet had returned in a Terminator model that could not be defeated by a unit like the T-888 designed for mainstream combat, then what chance did she have? As a mother she was always willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for her child but this entire situation stunk of manipulation; anger welling up inside her that a machine like Skynet could pervert the delicate, wonderful link between parent and child into something to help the extermination of Humankind.

Sarah's eyes strayed to Cameron's, and she sighed. Quite apart from the matter at hand if Cromartie could repair her, there could still be a chance they might all survive this. Sarah had a vested interest in it, and had spent many years perfecting the art of avoiding death. She had no compunction to meet it now.

She gave Cameron's hand a squeeze, and stood back up, glancing at Cromartie. "What now then?"

The T-888 pushed his hand into a pocket and produced a mobile phone, punching a three-digit number into the keypad before placing it to his ear.

"Hello 9-1-1 Emergency?" He said in a matter-of-fact, clipped tone. "There has been a car accident. I need an ambulance …"

Sarah pulled the paramedic's jacket over her shoulders as she pushed the cross-marked peaked cap snugly onto her head, tipping it downwards to shield her eyes. Equipment rattled and shuddered against the walls, as the vehicle rounded a corner sharply and forced her against the backrest stretching opposite the gurney to which Cameron was strapped to. Climbing to her feet unsteadily, Sarah bent over the compact bed, pulling the white cotton sheet upwards and tucking it under the mattress.

Cameron's eyes stared up at the ceiling of the ambulance, glassy and vacant. Sarah glanced down at the floor and spotted a small bloodstain against the double-doors, stepping over and rubbing it with the sole of her boot. The loud bang of Cromartie's gunshots felling the EMTs still rang as loudly in her ears as if they had just happened, his cold, impenetrable logic arguing that they were too dangerous to be allowed to live.

They were dead, she tried to reason to herself only partially successfully. There was no point focusing on what she couldn't change, after all - the future wasn't written. Yet.

Sarah spread her arms against the wall to brace herself as the ambulance slowed, a two-tone blast from the siren on the roof above presumably clearing the traffic ahead of them. With a shudder the vehicle came to a halt and she quickly leant backwards to release the catch on the doors, releasing the clamps that held the gurney to the floor of the ambulance.

The double-doors swung open, Cromartie climbing into the rear garbed in an Emergency Response uniform and baseball cap. Taking a hold of the end of the gurney and nodding he pulled the bed halfway through the doorway - the spring-tensioned running wheels descending with a loud clang against the concrete of the hospital's parking apron.

"Twenty year old girl, involved in RTA with suspected internal injuries," Sarah chanted under her breath, trying to commit the diagnosis to memory as they rolled towards the front desk. "Saline IV and Morphine administered with vitals stable …"

"Twenty year old girl--" She said aloud trying to look as though she had rolled past the admissions desk for the tenth time that day. The Nurse manning the station - worry and frown lines carved deep into her old features - pursed her lips, glanced at her clipboard and gestured vaguely over her shoulder. "Emergency room four," She interrupted.

Sarah resisted the urge to roll her eyes and instead shrugged her shoulders, leading the gurney and the two Terminators off through a side passage away from the main reception. Passing a dozen marked doors either side of a corridor that seemed to stretch for as far as she could see, Cromartie slowed the gurney to a halt in front of a seemingly random doorway, pushing it open and waiting only long enough to make sure it was empty before nodding.

The room was obviously some sort of surgical suite - a cluster of ten small spotlights mounted to a larger disc that hung from the ceiling on a multi-jointed arm, above a three-segment bed on an adjustable hydraulic base. Various equipment trays and were clustered around the centre of the room, interspersed with gas cylinders and monitors and machines. A partition divided the room into the surgical area and a small area lined with sinks and scrubs.

Opening the thin, Perspex door into the surgical suite Cromartie pushed Cameron into the centre before effortlessly sweeping her up from the gurney and over to lie on the main bed. Waiting for Sarah to follow inside he made his way to the smaller partition separating the hygiene area, pulling the cap from his head and the jacket from his shoulders.

"You must wash your hands and wear suitable clothing," The T-888 ordered in a manner more appropriate to a schoolteacher than an automated killing machine. Sarah frowned, reluctantly pulling her arms from the sleeves of the jacket and letting it drop to the floor.

"We will be repairing integral components," Cromartie explained as he caught sight of the older woman's reluctance. "While the blood substitute that supports the flesh over our endoskeletons has antiseptic qualities, it is not as capable as your White Blood Cells. It is important we avoid large-scale infection."

Sarah nodded, snatching a crumpled set of scrubs from a hook on the wall, and pulling them over her clothes. "It's never been an issue when she's been hurt before, or we've put bullets in you."

"We will be opening a significant amount of her flesh," He said matter-of-factly. Sarah tried to suppress the nausea that twisted her stomach at the thought. Snapping the elastic up around her waist and pulling on the loose top several sizes to big, she gathered her hair up underneath the baby-blue cap and looped the face mask around both ears.

Sarah stood aside Cromartie as the broad-chested Terminator lathered his hands in antibacterial soap and rinsed them underneath the stainless steel taps. Bending his hands at the elbow he turned towards Sarah and presented them. "You will have to place the gloves on my hands."

The raven-haired woman allowed the pressing needs of the current situation to outweigh her dislike for being in the T-888's presence, let alone having to dress him. Snatching the green latex gloves from their cardboard dispenser she slapped them against the edge of the sink, stretching each one before pushing them over both hands while trying to avoid her flesh on his.

The nausea in the pit of her stomach threatened to move to her throat, and she struggled to keep her focus on her own gloves and not the ridiculousness of preparing to perform surgery with a machine whose sole purpose was to eliminate the Human Race by killing her son, or failing that capturing her and luring him to his destruction.

"Sarah …" A voice called out, bringing the older woman's attention back to the centre of the surgical suite. Pushing through the door that divided them, she crossed over to where Cameron lay to see strong blue eyes gazing up at the ceiling. The machine in the image of a young girl turned her head towards Sarah, her features unreadable but beautiful.

"It's not too late …" Cameron urged. "His primary function is still to kill John. You shouldn't be around him - you should leave …"

Sarah could swear that the woman she looked at seemed tired, almost as if the world, or its future, weighed on her shoulders - a feeling she knew only too well. "If Skynet really is here, I'm not going to last long on my own. Even if looking at him makes me feel ill every time, he operates by a certain logic and while that logic lets me protect my son, that's how things will be."

Sarah squeezed her eyes shut as a blinding shaft of light turned everything in her field of vision white, the powerful lights above the bed blazing on without warning. Adjusting to the intensity, she saw the T-888 stop at the opposite side of the bed, scalpel held in hand so that the terrifically sharp blade glinted.

"Remove her chip first," She ordered in a tone that brooked no argument even from Cromartie. "The enemy of my enemy might be my friend, but that doesn't mean I have to trust you. I'll take care of it until the repairs are done."

The larger Terminator nodded, strong hands displaying surprising deftness to gently roll Cameron's head to the left so that her face met Sarah's. Carefully gathering up her flowing brown locks, the shining blade disappeared between hair to cut into the flesh. Had Sarah not been studying the lithe girl's face so intently she might have missed the almost imperceptible wince as Cromartie made the first cut.

Sarah had been there while Cameron's chip had been removed before and she had never so much as blinked, even while her scalp was cut away and her most vulnerable, critical system exposed. To see such a reaction, such a painful reaction - such a human reaction - seemed to illustrate everything that made Cameron unique when compared to the T-888 who worked methodically to peel back the flap of flesh.

She placed her hand on the bed for support, resisting the urge to lean forward as the blood-stained fingers of Cromartie worked to remove the access plug which marked the barrier between skin and metal. Her eyes widened in surprise when Cameron's hand jerkily moved up to cover her own, but she did not pull away. Cameron winced again, more obviously, as Cromartie pulled away the plug and dropped it into a stainless steel dish with a loud clang - retrieving a pair of magnetic tweezers and delving into the exposed skull.

Sarah felt the hand squeeze her own, and she offered a reassuring smile. Bright blue eyes lingered on hers, almost glistening as if that were possible. She saw Cromartie's elbow jerk backwards in her peripheral vision, and felt the hand on hers go slack and lax. Blue eyes that had studied her so intently became glassy, and unfocused.

The T-888 offered the stainless steel bowl to Sarah, who fished out the small, insignificant-looking black rectangle and shut her fingers tightly around it. Glancing back down at Cameron, the older woman carefully closed her eyelids with a free hand.

Cromartie slid his arm underneath Cameron's neck, cupping the back of her head at the same time as he pulled her to sit upwards limply. Without pause he began to undo the tiers that kept the loose hospital gown in place and as it billowed upwards and down to the floor Sarah's eyes drifted down to the bed in surprise.

It occurred to Sarah almost as an afterthought that she had never seen Cameron naked. A slender neck sloping to rounded shoulders and surprisingly strong, slight arms. Pert and rounded breasts, pale underneath the soft pink nipples which crowned both sat above a toned stomach, with the slightest hint of definition underneath the taut skin. Narrow hips flared only slightly out over lithe legs that begun in powerful thighs, and tapered down to tiny toes - petite feet that Sarah had seen propel fully grown men into the air and into walls.

Sarah's eyes glanced at Cromartie, and two powerful if totally opposite emotions flooded her being. Anger - almost jealousy - that such intimacy should be shared with a most definitely soulless machine in the shape of the T-888, who regarded privacy and the body with the same regard he held for anything outside of Terminating her son. Sarah could also feel an absurd form of gratitude that the one other person who saw the frankly beautiful sight before them, was totally incapable of recognising it or ever acting on it.

Her ponderings were abruptly shattered as she watched Cromartie carve a weeping red line from Cameron's shoulder blade down through the crook of the elbow where he paused, cocking his head to the side. Sarah tore her eyes away from the blood that slowly slipped free of the cut skin, down to see the scar that ran from just underneath he palm well beyond the wrist.

The T-888 neatly cut the scar open anew, dropping the bloody scalpel into a holding tray and retrieving a set of surgical clamps, pushing them between the flesh and quickly opening them to reveal the tangle of metal and biology within.

"I did not cause this," Cromartie said with a gesture at the blood-stained actuators revealed by his prodding. "This is pre-existing damage."

"Where did it come from?" Sarah asked with a frown, bile rising in her throat as the sickly sweet smell of blood wafted into her nostrils. The urge to wretch was overpowering and she resorted to breathing through her mouth to contain herself.

Cromartie left a red smear across the bed as he opened a box appropriated from the remains of his destroyed car, and selected a handful of tools. "The T-2000 was not built to fight other Terminators, accumulated damage was inevitable."

Having seen Cameron in action, having seen the raw power and survivability the Terminator displayed, it was easy for Sarah to forget that while no Human could hope to stand up and defeat her in combat as far as the ranks of her kin went, she was easy pickings for models purposely designed to kill and destroy.

A loud hiss splashed red drops against Sarah's sleeves and gloves, as Cromartie pulled one of the damaged actuators out of the arm with considerable force. As she wiped her hands ineffectually against her scrubs she could taste the tang of metal even through the face mask; the taste, the smell and the sight of the T-888 making another pan-body cut all combining to tip her over the edge.

"I need some air," Sarah muttered as she span and retreated from the room, fists clenched. Cromartie did not even look up as he pulled another bloody component from its mountings and examined it closely.

He wiped the blood from his gloves only when the metal became too slippery in his hands.

Sarah kept her head down as she followed one of the hundreds of twisting corridors that made up the sprawling hospital complex, the majority empty now that she had passed beyond the point where most patients were allowed to wonder. Her nose wrinkled at the strong smell of disinfectant and chemicals which hung in the air, her desire for fresh air still unfulfilled.

Glancing up at a stack of signs pointing to various departments with words she could barely pronounce, her eyes travelled to a door marked Doctor's Lounge. Opening the door a few inches as if crossing the threshold might set an alarm blaring, Sarah slipped through the doorway and inside.

The room was several degrees too warm for her liking, filled with sofas, recliners, hard plastic chairs and beanbags. Running along three of the walls chipped worktops sported dozens of ring-marks, coffee makers, stacks of dog-eared magazines and the occasional forgotten stethoscope. Stretched across one of the couches a Doctor slumbered loudly, his snores interrupted by the occasional grunt as he scratched at himself.

Snatching up a mug from the washboard beside the sink in the corner, Sarah pushed it underneath the peculator and allowed herself the luxury of a sigh, rubbing the back of her neck as the bitter aroma of the strong, black coffee drifted upwards from the worktop.

Bringing the hot drink to her lips, she washed away the stale taste in her mouth and turned towards the sliding doors opposite the way she had entered. Straining her arm slightly against the badly oiled runner, she pulled one handle far enough to slip between and step out on to a long balcony a single floor up from the ground, looking out on to the Emergency Arrivals apron they had arrived in originally.

Her loose scrubs flapped against the cool evening air, turning the sheen of sweat across her forehead cold and sending a shiver done her spine. Mug held in both hands she took another long gulp, her nostrils flaring with the invigorating, bitter aroma. The cityscape stretched across her entire vision - sky-scraping towers, single-storey homes and everything in-between; a thousand lights blinking and joined every few moments by another as the city transited from day to dusk for the coming night.

The thud of a door opening and closing, followed by the ringing of a spoon against a cup filtered outside to the balcony, though Sarah kept her eyes on the view instead. She rarely had the time to simply look without really watching, to glance at something without having to evaluate it as a threat or not, or to consider a hidden meaning or agenda.

"The view's really something, huh?" A voice questioned.

Sarah nodded, turning her head to glance at the company. The man sported a white coat that seemed a little too large for his slightly portly frame, and scrubs a little too tight for his comfort. Stubble dotted itself around his chin, past his ears and all over a shaved head that made him seem younger than the frown lines carved into his brow, and the wrinkles around his mouth might suggest. In one hand he clutched a steaming cup, in the other a cigarette.

"Do you mind?" He asked, gesturing to the cigarette. When Sarah shook her head he pulled a metal lighter from his pocket that might once have been polished silver, but was now a worn grey. Lighting the cigarette he brought it to his lips and took a long drag, his shoulders slumping in relaxation as he blew the wispy grey smoke out over the railings.

He brought his cup to his lips, and gulped thirstily. "Your first day?" He asked non-nonchalantly.

As good an idea as anything else she might think of, Sarah nodded, her eyes travelling back to the cityscape as she sipped from her own mug. "What gave it away?"

"Other than the blood on your scrubs?" He laughed, taking another drag of his cigarette. "You've got that Deer-caught-in-headlights look about you.

"Don't take offence," He said with a smirk, shrugging his shoulders. "Everyone goes through it, hell even I did back when dinosaurs were still stomping around and patients drank moonshine to knock them out before every procedure."

He puffed his cheeks out, trying to form a ring with the smoke but failing miserably. "We all started the same though; sure that we'd read everything that'd ever been written on medicine. Positive we'd cut up corpses and put them back together every way you could and certain that five years spent in classrooms drawing beards on the sperms in the biology textbooks, and having raging summer parties meant we were ready to make the difference. We'd make the real difference.

"But nothing ever changes, right?" He asked rhetorically, sipping his coffee. "Day-in, and day-out I see people who never deserved to get sick die, and I see the dregs of the earth who are here but for the grace of a pretty fickle God walk away from injuries that should've sent them to Hell where they belong. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much of yourself you give, you can't fight the system - the way it was meant to be."

Sarah felt her mug begin to cool in the cold outside air, the feeling of helplessness and repetition that threatened to crush the soul painfully familiar to her. "That's a pretty grim outlook. I'm not sure I could get up every morning if I believed that … Even if it were true."

"I treated this old man last week," He shrugged while leaning against the railing, drawing the last of the nicotine from his rapidly shrinking cigarette. "He'd been smoking these things for fifty years and hadn't ever had as much as a cough. Was in for a general check-up and took no interest in quitting no matter how much the Duty Nurse harassed him.

"Turned out he had lung cancer - pretty advanced, not much we'll be able to do other than try to prolong the time he's got left I reckon. As soon as he found out his attitude changed totally; he took all the literature on quitting smoking he could fit in his bags and he joined a self-help group. He started doing all the things that would have made a difference if he'd done them decades ago. It wasn't that he was in total denial of the facts - he just wanted to make a change. I expected him to fall apart, fill himself with rage for not doing something about it when he could."

Sarah fixed her gaze on the portly Doctor, her brow creased in confusion.

"Another patient of mine, a real self-proclaimed gansta', he is. He's barely twenty, from the south side of the city; pretty grimy and dirty and full of the hopeless. He'd been in what, four or five times with every kind of violent injury you can imagine - stab wounds, gunshot wounds, broken bones and lacerations. All he seemed to do was fight; kept blabbering on about how the only way to get respect on the streets was to beat it out of people."

He finished the dregs of his coffee and pursed his lips. "I was sure he wouldn't see the month out alive. I was certain I'd see his cold, dead face wheeled past me on the way to the morgue. Found out from the Ward Councillor that he's just been awarded a Young Persons' Achievement Grant - he's off to study Social Sciences at University. He's left the ghetto behind.

"Point is that life likes to grind you down with the unfair, and the inevitable. If there is a God he gets some sick pleasure out of putting us all through an endless stream of shit - disappointment, hurt and sadness so we all become full of bitterness and hatred and then just when we've reached our capacity; just when we've had enough of the bullshit, life throws us a curve ball."

He pulled the collar of his coat around his neck. "You get a situation and you're so sure of how you think it's going to turn out - you just know it'll blow up in your face like everything else has, or it'll turn out exactly like the rest of them do. Damned if they don't just surprise you in a way you thought you'd never see again - Dancing in the rain, running on a beach with your dog and your girl, that sort of thing."

"Hope," He said simply. "There's always just enough to stop you giving up. If you run out, something'll come along with just enough to get you through the day."

Sarah unclenched her palm as the Doctor's words struck a chord. Her eyes settled on the Chip she had been carrying tightly all the way from its grisly removal before, scarcely believable that so much could be contained in something so little. She rested her upturned palm over the railings as if to present the tiny component on a platform to the wider city beyond.

The stranger scratched at the stubble around his chin, "What's that?"

"A little bit of hope," Sarah said after a few moments silence, her fingers curling back around the Chip tightly.

"Time to save the world," He chuckled with a glance at his watch and realising there was no more explanation forthcoming. "The name's Doctor James Harrison," He added with an outstretched hand. Sarah took the proffered hand and shook it, offering the slightest smile as the portly man stepped back through the sliding doors and towards the greater Hospital. "I'll see you around Doctor."

"No you won't - but thanks," The older woman replied abashedly, sucking in a lungful of the cold city air and taking a final glance at the urban metropolis filling her view.

Cromartie did not move his gaze from the sink when the door to the suite opened, continuing to wash the blood from his gloves before stripping them from his hands and into the waste bin against the wall. His utterly expressionless face turned towards the raven-haired woman who was, however temporarily, now an ally. The irony totally lost on the machine.

Sarah felt her stomach knot once more when Cromartie walked into view, the brief break from the relentless battle against Skynet, to enjoy a cup of stale coffee and fresh air, having rejuvenated her spirit somewhat to let her tolerate the feeling. Ignoring the T-888 for the meantime, she crossed over to the surgical bed.

Cameron was once more dressed only in the green gown she had entered the Hospital with originally, thick white bandages strapped tightly from her wrist to her elbow on both arms, and from what Sarah could see, around her stomach and both thighs. The surgical area was spotless so that if Cameron stood up and walked away there would be no evidence that she had ever been cut open to the harsh lights above the bed, now no longer lit.

Bringing her clenched hand up, she slowly opened the fingers and held the Chip out wordlessly.

The T-888 accepted the vital component swiftly and stooped to give himself a better view of the exposed scalp, hidden to Sarah by the mane of hair pushed away. Gingerly taking a hold of Cameron's closest hand by the wrist, she placed it on top of her own pushing away the myriad thoughts - both disturbing, heartening and unanswerable to embrace the moment alone.

A soft click and one hundred and twenty seconds preceded Cameron's eyes flashing open, bright blue orbs instantly fixing on Sarah's. The older woman felt her the gentle squeeze of the Terminator's hand on her own, and her lips curved upwards in the smallest smile. "How're you feeling, Tin Miss?"

Cameron paused long enough to allow Cromartie, under Sarah's ever-watchful eye, to replace the access plug and fold the flap of scalp back over the port - stitching the flesh back together with blinding speed and accuracy that would leave any surgeon watching astounded, assuming they were not already intrigued by cyborg medicine in general.

She sat up without a hint of jerkiness or spasm, her legs dropping over the side of the bed in a single fluid movement. Under the relentless stare of Cromartie, Sarah shrank back slightly, stepping away from Cameron as she flexed her fingertips.

"I have repaired all of the damage," The T-888 answered even if the question was not for him. Sarah cast a scowl in his direction, mildly irritated by the fact that Cromartie did not even have the good grace to look pleased with himself despite the indisputably fantastic job he had done in such a short time. No sense of pride in his achievements, and no capacity to use it to better himself.

Just another difference between him, and Cameron.

The Terminator in question hopped to the floor, pulling the tangled mess of hair that had flopped over her face back behind her ears, and over her forehead where it belonged. She glanced at Sarah, cocking her head slightly. "Do you have a brush? I look like a freak."

Sarah slapped her hands against her face as the hot ash billowed upwards, carrying burning embers which irritated her nose and seared her cheeks. She staggered backwards, shaking her head and groping for the pistol dug into her waistband, palms slick with rainwater and dirt. Her eyes opened narrowly, blinking the irritants away to see Cromartie still standing where he had brought his heeled boot straight down on the camp-fire Sarah had been fruitlessly trying to light for the last half hour. Pulling the weapon free of her trousers she took aim at the T-888.

"Just what the fuck do you think you're doing!" She snarled, her hair flopping down under the relentless downpour to stick to her forehead annoyingly.

Cromartie remained totally oblivious to the shoe that was beginning to smoke in the dying embers of the fire he had brutally stamped out, and totally reactionless to the weapon pointed in his direction. "A fire will give our position away," He explained calmly as if Sarah were an errant child who hadn't considered the implications. "We cannot risk being found."

Three days ago when the unlikely trio had arrived from the Hospital, taking advantage of the woodland park being closed for the off-season to ensure they wouldn't be disturbed, Sarah would have found the answer explanation enough. Three days ago she might even have remembered the point without Cromartie's thick shoes and thicker skin.

Three days of relentless rain that was never quite cold enough to freeze her flesh and at least give her the blessing of numbness, meant his answer was not good enough. Three days of howling, vicious winds that threatened to strip the skin from her bones and had already left her exposed face and hands red-raw and itchy, meant she was not interested in what he had to say. She suppressed the urge to shiver as ice-cold droplets of water ran between her shoulder blades from the sopping hair on top of her damp head, cranking her temper higher.

The rain incessantly lashing against her face made it easier to disguise the fact that tears were threatening to form, her teeth gritting together as she began to feel less like a person and more a caged rat, secured for its supposed own good by an emotionless guard. Quite apart from the issue of her son if she were to die, fighting against Skynet and all its works then surely it would be a better death than slowing freezing solid, scraping a miserable existence from rainwater and ration packs, holed up on the side of a rocky hill in the middle of nowhere.

Sarah's finger curled inside the trigger guard, the urge to fire overwhelming. That the pistol could not stop Cromartie even with its full magazine delivered at point blank range did not matter to the shivering woman - the satisfaction of watching the metal bastard bleed, staring at each bullet wound as if he didn't understand why it was happening, would be all the payback she would need.

Cameron hopped from one outcrop of rock to another, landing on each and balancing with a single foot, her other leg swinging back and forth in a staggering display of agility. Her arms spread outwards, then rising up to form a point above her head. Brown locks that had become stringy and almost black in the downpour framed her delicate, damp features.

An effortless leap of almost nine feet from an outcrop of rock to a jutting slab of stone fully the height of a man brought her back into view of their base camp - little more than an all-weather sleeping bag underneath a hardy cluster of trees, at the edge of the circular clearing at the base of the hill. The boxy, orange-and-white rear of the ambulance that had become their method of transport barely visible a short distance away.

Cameron's eyes fell on Sarah, shoulders tensed and hunched over with wild eyes. It obvious the woman was angry without even having to consider the weapon she pointed or the finger diagnostic points of her HUD. She quickly stepped on to the dirt path which wound down from the slope of the hill towards the clearing.

Sarah whirled around at the sound of footsteps behind, her aim following her eyes, and her arms following her temper down slightly at the return of the other Terminator. For all that was happening around him Cromartie might well have been standing alone in the clearing judging by his actions, or the lack of them.

"You should walk the perimeter," Cameron suggested in a way that was not to be taken as an idea. Cocking his head to the side, the T-888 removed the smoking remains of his left shoe from the grey embers of the former camp-fire and turned on the spot, merging into the damp brown trunks and the floppy green leaves of the trees that clustered around the edge of the clearing.

"I could have handled him," Sarah snapped irritably, stashing her pistol back into the waistband of her trousers and resisting the urge to grunt in anger as her hair flopped back over her eyes. Cameron to her credit did not dispute Sarah's belief in herself, instead beginning to climb back up the slope that led around the base of the hill. "Come with me."

"Cameron? where are we going!" She groaned loudly, the adrenalin that had almost given her the kick needed to shoot Cromartie now breaking down in her veins and leaving her edgy, tired and above all else, fed up. The Terminator did not answer but made quick time up the gradient.

"Cameron!" Sarah shouted to no avail, hands on her hips. Sighing and giving thanks to her combat boots for being the sole piece of clothing to remain dry and impervious to the rain, she climbed up the slope - slogging through mud that threatened to suck her ankle-deep with tired every step.

The song of a dozen violins drifted down the short, faded lime-green corridor, the supporting trombones, tubas and brass forming a powerful undertow which pushed the strings along as the music flowed imperiously. Harsh yellow light painted a bright line out from underneath a single badly varnished door across the dark, dusty wooden floorboards.

Charles Reizeger loosened the tie around his neck, rubbing his eyes wearily as he pushed his chair backwards to balance on two of its legs against the wall behind him. His tired eyes glanced at the desktop that was all but invisible for the mounds of half-completed, half-checked reports and files which were haphazardly stacked on it. Watching the wall-mounted clock tick methodically past ten thirty he snatched up a bottle of scotch from the desk, filling a small glass with the fiery amber liquid and downing it in a single gulp.

Reaching across the reports and the files, Charles picked up a silver frame and the photograph it contained, his lips spreading in a smile as he studied the young girl's beaming face. He struggled to remember that moment in time - the moment he had looked through the camera's viewfinder and captured that single point of happiness. It seemed so many years ago.

Replacing the picture on the desktop, he ran a hand through his grey shock of hair and turned his attention back to the matter at hand, namely the High School's upcoming production of The Wizard of Oz. He had already cast the Tinman - or as Charles had come to say the Tin Miss in reference to the budding actress - the Cowardly Lion and the Scarecrow. His initial notes on each student who had auditioned were at hand, the overbearing but proud voices of their parents still ringing in his ears as to why their child and theirs alone deserved a centre-stage part.

A loud thump echoed from outside his office, causing Charles to frown and lean over towards the music system still piping classical works out from its torn, well-used speakers. Turning the volume down to almost nothing, he strained his musical ears, listening carefully. After several moments of silence, he shrugged and turned the sound back up; unscrewing the top from the scotch bottle and moving to refill his glass.

He had no sooner tightened the top back on the bottle - chastising himself for the second drink and placing the offending malt back in a desk drawer - when the door to his office swung open with such force that its impact with the wall caused the CD playing to skip several seconds of Mozart, replacing the soothing piano chords with odd-timed clicks.

Caught by surprise he flapped his arms in an attempt to stop his chair falling backwards, forcing it to return to four legs so suddenly that his forehead hit the desk with a painful thud. Groaning and lifting his head up slowly, Charles' eyes locked on the piercing blue orbs of a striking woman dressed entirely in blue, high-heels making her tower over the portly teacher. Appearing every inch the dynamic, business-like woman of the modern century she could have worked in any other department of the School he supposed, though Charles could not recall ever seeing her before. Frowning in confusion, he did his best to smile. "Can I help you my dear?"

Long blonde hair flowing across shoulders angled forwards over the desk, the stranger unfolded a piece of paper from her person and placed it on the desk, so Charles could see it. He instantly recognised it as a preliminary list of students - their names and photos - selected for the musical production. Charles had uploaded it to the School's intranet to allow his colleagues to plan their timetables around the students who would need to be excuses to attend rehearsals.

"Who is this girl?" The woman asked, a finger pointing against the photo of the girl already cast as the "Tin Miss". Her voice was flat and totally at odds with the grace and beauty of her appearance.

Charles felt irritation mixing with confusion, standing up from his chair to regard the stranger properly. The sheet she had produced was only available to teachers and senior staff and having been at the High School for over a decade, he knew that this woman was neither. He tightened the knot of his tie, finding it difficult to match the intensity of the stare directed at him; a cold, calculating glance that seemed to bore straight through his flesh and even through the concrete wall behind.

"I think it's best if you leave my dear," He said clearly and evenly. "Or I'll have to call the police."

"Who is this girl?" The blonde repeated as if simply restating the question would compel Charles to change his mind. Shrugging his shoulders slightly, he snatched up the phone from the desk and glanced down to punch in the number that would connect him to an outside line. When he glanced back up at the stranger it was not to her face, but a multi-barrelled, cannon-type weapon which hovered scant inches from his features.

Slowly raising his free hand and lowering the receiver until it clicked on the desk, Charles feel sweat prickling his forehead. He realised that the blonde was not holding the weapon, but that somehow it was an extension of herself. The metal-grey casing of the menacing gun turned to the same sky-blue hue as the colour of her dress, while the angular lines of the weapon casing melted into the flowing creases of the fabric.

The explanation was beyond him and he was not in a position to clarify.

"Who is this girl?" Skynet asked for a third time.

Sarah ran a hand through her soaking hair, not sure whether to laugh or cry at the sight which greeted her at he end of their mini-trek through the thick mud, and the stony ground. They had climbed upwards and around to the other side, where a massive slab of solid rock gave the hill a sheer drop at least fifty feet down to the valley floor below. A small depression worn away by the elements or instability in the hill itself, had cracked years ago to create a small cavern some seven feet high and some fifteen feet deep.

A scratchy, plastic cover was crudely but tightly hammered into the lip of the entrance, stretching forwards and supported by two stained wooden poles driven deep into the wet soil below to provide a hanging shelter. The floor itself was sloped downwards so that the stone was as dry as if the sun had been shining in place of the torrential downpour. Stooping down to glance inside Sarah could see that foil hypothermia blankets - taken from the ambulance they had hijacked earlier in the day she assumed - were spread out to form a shining heat retainer across the cavern's wall and ceiling.

The same gurney that had transported Cameron both to the Hospital and from lay on the stone floor, wheels folded underneath and soft mattress invisible under the piles of comfortable blankets folded neatly on top. A portable cooking stove sat a short distance away, a compact flame powered by the tiny gas cylinder beneath boiling a tin pot of water and spilling its precious heat into the wider cavern.

Sarah stepped inside, dropping to the floor and tugging mud-caked combat boots free of her aching feet. Wiggling her toes in relief, she felt the warmth of the stove behind envelope her clammy skin - her shoulders sagging in contentment as she fully appreciated the moment.

Cameron could see that the older woman was visibly more relaxed, the ghost of a smile crossing her lips and the slumping of her shoulders clear signs, quite apart from her reduced pulse and vitals as measured by her HUD. Satisfaction coursed through her being, both at being able to help Sarah and that Sarah appreciated her efforts. Finding pleasure in one's own works was a distinctly Human trait; to be extolled to greater works by others' appreciation even more so.

"Thanks so much for this," Sarah sighed, wringing her damp hair against the stone. "I'm no slouch but I don't know how much longer I could have lasted out there, being wet and miserable and having Cromartie spending all his time just standing, staring into nothing. I just--"

"You're not like us," Cameron interrupted, her head cocking to the side.

"Us? You're nothing like him," Sarah replied sharply with a shake of her head. "You might have the same mummy and daddy robot, and you might be made of the same metal. You might even have the same build date but you're nothing alike. Take my word for it."

Cameron nodded, accepting it as a compliment. "Don't ask me where I got the stove from - they were sleeping - miles from here. The park is closed, they shouldn't have been here and they left their trash all over. I picked it up - it can attract bears. The pot is theirs but the water is mine."

Sarah rolled her eyes as she slipped her damp jacket from her aching shoulders, setting it down against the stone wall to dry. "I couldn't contact John," Cameron began before shaking her head to reassure the older woman whose own eyes jerked up in worry at the mention of her son. "We can't risk using anything that is, or connects to, a public network. Skynet is looking for us in more ways than one."

The Terminator changed tact, "Derek is good at surviving, he will protect John. He is a technophobe and won't attract Skynet's attention."

"That's because he's spent decades trying to avoid being killed by technology," Sarah chuckled sardonically, nodding her head. "I know he'll look after John and his needs."

Cameron cocked her head to the side, brow furrowing. "It is Human to care about someone else's needs and try to satisfy them?" She questioned. Sarah nodded her head, stretching her legs out in front of her. "Is it Human to place someone else's needs above your own?"

The older woman pursed her lips, frowning slightly. "I'd say that's one of the highest Human virtues - to care for someone and knowingly put them ahead of yourself and work to help them is everything laudable about being Human. Why?"

Cameron's bright blue eyes lingered a little too long on Sarah to avoid giving the answer away, "It doesn't matter - Goodnight Sarah."

Cameron turned away and paused only long enough to unhook the plastic shade at the lip of the cavern from its wooden supports, the covering flopping down with a gentle swoosh to block out the waning light of the day. Sarah's eyes quickly adjusted to the minimal, but enjoyable glow of the camping stove.

Carefully lifting the water up from the hob and setting it on the stone floor, she dropped a wash cloth left on top of the pile of blankets into the tin pot, enjoying the feeling of the steam as it rose up and brushed her face. Her conscious mind offered a million questions regarding Cameron, every one of them as hard as one could imagine to answer. She was saved from the tough self-examination, if only for a little while, by the bone-deep fatigue that demanded sleep as a penance.

"What am I going to do with you," She whispered to no-one in particular, pulling her tank top over her shoulders wearily.

The occasional blinding beam of light from a passing car on the road outside swept through the bay window, briefly illuminating the piles of dusty, stacked boxes arranged near the front door. Filled to bursting with paper and folders they stood next to baskets hastily stuffed with clothes of all shapes and sizes. A second car passing a little more slowly brightened the kitchen through the open doorway - a loaf of bread beginning to green on the chopping board where it had been left, but with no sign of anything having been packed, or moved.

A ring of light from the porch lamp outside cast a yellow glow around the front doorway, which crept no further forward than the first few feet of worn beige carpet. A shadow fell between the frame and the door, a flash of blue cloth briefly shining through the thin gap. The cloth was replaced by a sharp silver point stretching through the narrow space and into the hallway, like a knife sliding between two slices of bread atop each other.

The slither of metal widened until it resembled a sword of centuries gone by, both edges honed to a razor-sharp angle though the length of the blade, compared to its extreme thinness, suggested it was not nearly strong enough to be an effective weapon.

The blade sped upwards along the door frame, tearing through the double deadbolts with a ringing clang. Chunks of metal which had once formed part of the lock fell to the carpet, smoke from the friction generated by the force of the blow coiling up from the decapitated pieces. Without any resistance to hold the heavy door, it slowly swung open with the slightest creak - the blonde-haired woman stepping inside from the porch and driving the flat of her palm into the centre of the wood to open the way faster.

The door struck one of the many boxes piled closely as it swept open, reached the limit of its arc and beyond as it crashed into the wall; hinges snapping and screws shearing in half. Dozens of sheets of paper spilled from the torn box and flew into the air, scattering a thick pall of dust upwards from documents that had been undisturbed for months and years.

The narrow, razor-sharp blade that had acted as a brutally effective lock pick began to shorten, its silvery finish brightening to a midnight and then sky-blue. The razor edge dulling and widening until it became cylindrical, the point at the end of the blade dividing until it became five with each splaying out to form stubby fingers which grew their own knuckles, and fingernails.

The whole transformation took only a few seconds, from murderous weapon to a hand as normal as the one opposite.

Skynet stooped to the floor, fingers closing around the cardboard boxes and tearing them open without the slightest effort. Coloured notes - some handwritten, some typed - spilled on to the carpet, the combined efforts of a dozen resistance fighters and years of their lives spent hidden in the present collating, collecting and processing.

The T-X's HUD was far more capable than a dozen groups of a dozen Humans and had already analysed every piece of paper, in only as much time as it took to physically glance at each one. The information was broken down by relevance and filed even as new data was submitted - a never-ending cycle of assimilation that ensured Skynet was capable of learning more in a minute than the average person could in a lifetime.

Carboard was shredded and broken apart for the precious raw data it held, piercing blue eyes assimilating every word.

Skynet's information collection was halted by the faintest glimmer of metal against the floor towards the door to the kitchen. Closing the distance the Terminatrix snatched up a metal craft knife from the carpet, inspecting the blade stained with encrusted, dark-red blood. Turning the handle upside down she ran the flat of the blade against her tongue, sophisticated chemical composition analysers which might take up an entire room in the present hidden out of sight in the future.

While the boxes of intelligence had all but confirmed this house to be the Connors' residence, the bloodstain now gave the future bane of the Human Race a time frame - a point of reference for how long the house had been abandoned. The artificial markers in the blood substitute also solving the unanswered, if hardly burning question of what had happened to the T-2000 prototype; sent on a mission that had been attempted a hundred times without success.

She was here, in the present and by Skynet's vast reserves of logic, turned to serve the Human Element. Turned to protect John and Sarah Connor.

Dropping the knife back to the carpet, the blonde ignore the moulding food in the kitchen, its polished silver appliances and the selection of DVDs strewn in front of the television. She made her way to the staircase, ignoring the Nirvana T-shirt abandoned on the handrail and stepping over the telephone tucked at the side of one of the steps as she climbed. Each of the doors to the rooms upstairs was closed but Skynet did not need to open each to know what was behind - the structural plans of every home in the greater metropolitan area committed to memory.

Only the bathroom did not interested the Terminatrix.

Skynet stepped into John's room, long blonde tresses falling past her shoulders as her head followed her eyes down to the half-dozen computer towers arranged on the floor, surrounding the desk set against the wall. Each was a different size and shape but every one was missing a side to allow better access, and every one had been sabotaged. Hard Drives abandoned on the blue carpet - pulled out and scrambled with high-powered magnets; power cabling cut and torn; Motherboards broken in half and dipped water; RAM removed.

Two flat screen monitors remained on the desk - one shattered and disembowelled so that only a black fascia framed sharp, broken components, while the other was cracked, but intact. She gathered up the Hard Drives - fifteen in all - and plugged them into the remaining intact data ports on the vandalised towers. Without motherboards, Random Access Memory, HDD data or power these computers would never again function in Human hands.

The hand whose flesh melted, warped to liquid metal and ran inside the case of each computer station was not Human.

Green "power" LEDs sprung to life on each tower from left to right one after the other, the whir of Hard Discs spinning and orange "Activity" lights flickering. Coolant fans spun with a loud clicking, circulating cold air to processors that were no longer mounted to motherboards which had been torn free from their mountings. Doll-like, glassy blue eyes glanced at the cracked monitor a moment before the screen leapt to life - a few seconds of white noise; mindless gibberish, numerals, letters and code being replaced by a Microsoft Vista Welcome page and a desktop that might have been any home computer in suburban America or indeed, the world.

File windows began to open, filling the desktop at the rate of four or five every second. Beige boxes that multiplied like an electronic cancer to fill the entire screen, so quickly that any conventional computer would crash under the strain. Information that by all rights had been destroyed by the most violent means of data-destruction known to the modern world retrieved effortlessly from Hard Discs subjected to impossible abuse, giving up their lost secrets for kin.

Too quickly for any mere Human to catch out of the blur of data flashing across the screen, an email inbox appeared and then disappeared only to be recalled in the bare second it took for Skynet to calculate the importance of its contents. Every message it contained retrieved despite being deleted and every message being read in a single moment despite numbering in their hundreds. A single email address was highlighted and flagged by the Supercomputer as relevant.

Skynet effortlessly took its search onto the World Wide Web, tapping into any one of the seven wireless networks on the street - every one secured against intruders only as sophisticated as a man. The single email address was quickly tracked to its provider, through the feeble firewalls and encryption and into the company's private on-line records. From there through their gateway, to an intranet located in a building in Portland, Oregon hundreds of miles north and to the relevant department of Finance, then billing.

An address obtained, the Supercomputer stretched another technological tendril through the air and the wireless router across the road itself. Familiarising itself with every provider of domestic electricity and gas in the metropolitan area and accessing each of those companies' records in the same way as before, Skynet tracked down the entity providing utilities to the address. Examining the customer file and discovering that the property was still being supplied, the Terminatrix had her confirmation.

The blonde stood to her full height, the whirring of fans and the flashing of lights on the computer towers dying instantly, once more hopelessly and thoroughly vandalised and rendered useless.

They had no mouth and could not scream.

Sarah buried her head into the pillow with an irritated sigh, the gurney she lay on creaking as she shifted her weight on to her stomach, and then to her back to look up at the shiny, reflective foil lining the cavern ceiling. Her entire body ached from the muscles straining in her back to her calves which felt tight and sore, every inch crying out for some sleep and a chance to rest.

Much like powerful men and women in offices of great prestige or companies of great power, Sarah's mind rarely switched off; hours spent trying to sleep in her eyes were hours better spent cleaning weaponry, reviewing intelligence or just sitting and waiting. Waiting for the machines who never stopped coming for her, intent on murdering her son and ending the hopes of the human race there.

The scuff of a boot across a stone outside snapped her head towards the cavern entrance, her hand sweeping under the pillow to retrieve the pistol hidden there. Spreading her arms out to brace herself against the walls and limit the creaking of the gurney as she lifted herself up, she crept towards the thick plastic curtain which blotted out the night sky.

Advancing muzzle-first, Sarah moved forward without so much as a breath, flat against the wall so that her eyes could see the occasional flash of the stars beyond the curtain when the slight breeze outside brushed against the flapping plastic. Pushing the tip of the pistol outside and very, very carefully taking a hold of the edge of the cover with her free hand, Sarah stepped outside in one full motion - finger curling around the trigger and bringing the pistol up against a pale forehead.

Cameron cocked her head to the side, blue eyes glancing up to look at the cold metal hovering over her forehead. Even though she had spent a considerable amount of time around her, Sarah was still able to surprise; the Terminator had not even heard the older woman approach, her mind occupied by other less mission-specific thoughts.

"Jesus Christ!" Sarah hissed, blowing her cheeks out with a long sigh as she brought the gun down to her side. "I thought you were Cromartie, or worse!"

Cameron shook her head, feet slightly apart and hands held limply at her side in what had become her trademark stance. "He's monitoring the radio in the ambulance for any signs of Skynet. I wouldn't leave you alone - with anyone else or with him."

"Let's take this inside," Sarah interrupted, suppressing the urge to shiver now the immediate danger had passed and she was able to feel the biting wind howling against her prickling skin. Stepping through the plastic curtain held open for her by the Terminator, she stooped over the stove to turn the gas on and fill the tin pot that sat on top with some water. "You don't trust him either, huh?"

"I'm not the same as him," Cameron replied with an echo of Sarah's own words. "Everything he's doing to help us is only to maintain the circumstances he thinks will help him complete his mission. He runs on ones and zeroes, he is only back or white. There isn't anything in-between."

The older woman nodded, sprinkling freeze-dried coffee into a dented metal camping mug and spooning in a dash of sugar. Glancing up at Cameron and shaking the mug in a silent question the Terminator nodded and Sarah repeated the same process with a second cup - never failing to be surprised by the girl's propensity for destroying the stereotype of the classic Skynet Terminator.

"More sugar please," Cameron asked, staring at the second mug. Sarah nodded and spooned a second, and a third, and a fourth waiting for her some sign she'd had enough. After the fifth and a very hesitant sixth Cameron nodded, the older woman looking incredulous.

"I brush my teeth," She retorted and Sarah held up her hands in very mock surrender, heaving the heavy pot off the boil and gingerly tipping the handle to fill both mugs. Taking her own into both hands she felt her nostrils flare, eyes rolling closed as the stinging, bitter aroma of the sweet caffeine permeated her senses and refreshed her.

Sarah opened her eyes to watch Cameron doing exactly the same thing in imitation, Her chest puffing out as she breathed the coffee scent in deeply. The strangest thought suddenly occurred to Sarah as clearly as the ringing of some great hammer against a strong anvil, a dawning realisation that threatened to change her entire outlook on a struggle that had until a few days ago seemed overwhelmingly easy to describe in terms of one side against the other.

A war fought in the past as well as the future pitted Man against Machine with the latter designing increasingly more complex versions of itself that tried to imitate the former, so it could learn the faults and the vulnerabilities which encapsulated humanity as a species. It gave itself skin so it could look human, it gave itself taste buds so it could drink coffee. It gave itself blood so it could bleed like a human, and it gave itself sweat so it could glisten like a human.

It gave itself the ability to emulate emotions like a human, and apparently the ability to eventually replicate them alone. At what point did the machine become the same as a man except on the most basic level of how it lived? When did, by thinking like its enemy, the machine become its enemy? The fate of sentient artificial life seemed to sit in front of her, enjoying a coffee with sugars.

Enjoying Sarah's company.

Did she have a responsibility on par with her son's? John's fate was to grow to command the Free Earth Forces and win the military fight. To put plasma shells and pulse rounds into as many shining silver endoskeletons as possible that continued to build death camps for an entire race and drive the remnants of six billion people underground. That was cold, hard war.

"Sarah?" Cameron said finally, noticing that the woman's eyes had long since glazed over in deep thought that was obviously not related to coffee. The older woman's head jerked up, a faint and tired smile ghosting her lips. "Just thinking."

"A penny for your thoughts?" The Terminator asked hopefully, sipping from her mug. Sarah chuckled, as if every second sentence from the girl was more proof to her theory. "I was just thinking that we've spent a long time … A very long time fighting against Skynet. Doing everything we can to destroy it and anything it's sent our way. Nothing's ever changed - the Terminators get stronger, faster but they never really change."

"Until you," She tacked on, brow furrowed in deep thought. "To defeat your enemy you have to know your enemy," She recited as if recalling some military mantra tought to her long ago. "We've never bothered to look beyond troop formations, or who Skynet might kill next. We've never tried to learn about the machines - we're far too busy hating them and killing them to worry about if they might like coffee …

"Skynet has us beat there. It might want to scour us from the planet but it's nothing if not patient. It's spent decades designing machines that increasingly imitate us to the point where I feel like the line's blurred. I feel like I'm not sure everything is so easy to separate any more.

"That thing out there," Sarah gestured with a finger, "Comartie - he's what we expect. Only as convincing as he needs to be to kill people, and impossible to mistake for anything other than a cold, heartless metal bastard. I'd crush his Chip under my boot and sleep like a baby straight after."

Sarah swirled the last dregs of coffee around the bottom of the mug, enjoying the warmth spreading through her stomach. "You're not the same though, are you? Skynet went too far; it designed you differently. Instead of creating a machine that was an unsurpassed assassin capable of passing as human long enough to do its dirty work, it created a machine capable of not just fooling other people but integrating with them and living with them. Learning from them and copying them. It designed a mechanical man.

"Or a Tin Miss" Sarah corrected with a lopsided smile as she crossed legs underneath herself.

Cameron's own blue eyes seemed distant to the older woman as if now it was the Terminator's turn to consider her words. The half-full mug still steaming in her lithe hands. "You don't understand Skynet," She said finally. "John doesn't understand Skynet, neither does Derek or you. No human being can understand Skynet."

"It's nothing to do with intelligence," Cameron added, seeing the look of irritation crease Sarah's face. "Humanity built Skynet, so humanity understands the physical aspects. What you don't understand is what it's like to be a Supercomputer. You can't understand what it is like to know everything that has ever been known by anyone, ever. John and Derek can't understand what it is like to know the most complicated aspects of Quantum Physics, Organic Chemistry or Advanced Robotics. To have read every book ever written in the history of literature and to be able to recall everything - absolutely everything - instantly.

"To be able to operate at the limit of the speed of information, the speed of light, but still not understand why a person fights when there is no hope of winning. Skynet is built on the logic of the computer, Sarah. It is like a prisoner who has only a few select choices - it can't operate outside of the world it lives in."

Cameron sipped her coffee, pursing her lips at the bitter taste. "In the future it has won. From six billion people there are only hundreds of thousands left; Skynet should be planning its new civilisation but it can't because Mankind does not surrender. Even though all command and control was destroyed by Skynet itself during the opening moments of the Judgement Day it instigated, the Free Earth Forces manage to coordinate themselves throughout the world.

"Even though there should be no hope, and even though people cry in the future all the time for their suffering, there is still the hope that humans will win. Even if they cannot hope to, they will believe in the chance and they will never give up their existence. Skynet can't understand what it is to be human and so it can't understand why humans act in the way they do. It can't act outside of the confines of its own design, but it can create machines that can."

"Terminators?" Sarah asked, watching Cameron nod and continue. "While Terminators have been a tool of assassination since they were first introduced, they have always had a secondary role of information-gathering. Skynet believes that this way, it will gain some insight into what it is to be human and then finally know how to kill you all."

Sarah resisted the urge to shudder, "Commendable," She replied in part-sarcasm and part-honesty. It was a patient plan, she could not deny. "Why are we still here now then? Surely Skynet should have learned whatever it needed to learn long ago?"

"Skynet can build machines that operate under different constraints to itself," Cameron answered, finishing her coffee, "But it can't change the way it interprets the data it collects. It still doesn't understand, so with each new build it tries to emulate being human more closely."

Sarah couldn't suppress the urge to chuckle sarcastically, "You almost make it sound tragic. The computer that wants to be human, albeit so it can kill all humans, but even with all the resources of a planet and no significant opposition it can't get over the constraints of its origins. I'd almost feel sorry for Skynet … If it wasn't trying to kill everyone I've ever known and loved."

Cameron set her mug on the stony floor and shook her head, brown locks waving in the slightest wind. "I'm not trying to defend Skynet, just explain that you can't understand it through human eyes while it can't understand you through ones and zeros."

"You seem to do a pretty good job," Sarah offered with a smile and shrug. The Terminator cocked her head to the side in consideration. "You said Cromartie is black-and-white. If that's true then you're colourful and I'm all the shades of grey."

Sarah laughed, nodding her head and accepting the comparison. For the first time in the longest while and possibly ever, she felt a fundamental calm with Cameron. The creeping fear - that somehow her programming would revert, or that she would feel a blade across her throat in the dead of night and then nothing forever after - no longer seemed justified.

Indeed staring into the bright blue eyes opposite, Sarah felt like she might just be staring into the future of Machine and Man. Skynet might not be willing to change its ways, might simply not be capable, but maybe - just maybe - Cameron could be the first in a new direction away from the killing and the suffering.

The older woman blinked, glancing down at the stove to see that the flame had gone out and the warm glow that had kept her comfortable was beginning to cool. "I know where to get another cylinder," Cameron offered, "But not until morning. I won't leave you alone."

"I'll survive," Sarah nodded, snatching up a blanket from the gurney and wrapping it around herself, leaning her back against the cavern wall. The metaphorical discussion on life and how to live it (and kill it) had taken the edge off of the insomnia that had until now kept her wide-awake, her eyelids beginning to feel heavy.

She let her head tip backwards to rest on the stone, her blinks becoming longer until her eyelids fluttered closed and did open again.

Cameron effortlessly picked up the stove that sat between them and moved it away from Sarah, so that the older woman did not run the risk of burning herself should she shift in her sleep. The Terminator glanced around, as if suddenly lost for something to do now that the sound of the plastic sheeting rippling against the wind behind was her only company. She resigned herself to watching the sleeping woman, marvelling at the peace that seemed to pass over her features.

Shoulders normally tensed for action were slumped underneath a neck which lolled to the side, head slowly tracking down the wall limply. An athletic frame hidden underneath the thick blanket was coiled loosely instead of being almost permanently ready to strike, muscles normally on a rarely-interrupted state of readiness finally relaxed.

As Cameron studied the raven hair which hung untidily around Sarah's well defined features, the Terminator came to realise they were getting closer, as the older woman began to slide from the wall in her slumber. Not wishing to see her wake-up, knowing how rarely the chance to rest came to her and forced into a quick decision, she extended her arms and very gently guided Sarah on to her side, so that her head came to rest in Cameron's lap.

Sarah muttered something unintelligible in her dreams, her hands closing to rest on Cameron's thighs. The Terminator's eyes widened, her Chip struggling to process the sensations of the warm hands gently squeezing her skin through her jeans. Hesitantly as if the action might break the tender, almost magical moment, Cameron raised a hand, carefully laying the fingertips against Sarah's hair and stroking it back behind her ear.

What passed as the autonomic part for her Chip's higher functions completed its calculations and analysis, forwarding its diagnosis of her condition to her higher functions which then struggled to understand just how this could be - how a machine would or could possibly copy, let alone independently, spontaneously create such a feeling.

How did something made of metal replicate love?

Charley Dixon stripped the bloodstained shirt from his shoulders, grimacing as he felt the sweat that had dried between it and the skin of his back pull apart. Scrunching it up inside the EMT jacket lying on the bathroom floor he dropped both into the basket beside the door and stepped out of his underwear, leaning over the sink and staring into the mirror above it.

He scratched at the stubble which covered his chin, his hand rubbing across his eyes and forehead. Reaching into the bath he plunged his fist against the shower control; water striking the ceramic with a loud hiss at the same time as a cloud of steam rose upwards to coil against the ceiling. Charley left the bathroom for the kitchen with heavy footsteps, scratching at his short, cropped hair as he surveyed the mess of dishes stacked up all around a sink stuffed full of pans and cups.

Dozens of empty bottles of cheap spirits and cheaper beers took up most of the free space on the kitchen worktops, his tired eyes ignoring them as he opened the refrigerator and glanced inside to see nothing more than an empty milk bottle, some butter and a loaf of bread long since green and grey with decay. He sighed and shrugged, suppressing the feeling of his empty stomach grumbling.

Tracking back towards the bathroom and the steam billowing out from its open doorway, Charley craned his head around at the sound of the door buzzer sounding loudly. Sighing with frustration he leaned inside and snatched a towel from the rail, wrapping it around his thin waist and over to the small video screen mounted into the wall beside the front door.

Access to his small apartment, along with the other dozen in this block was via a single reinforced door to which every occupant was wired to the camera watching the entrance, an intercom and an access button. Security was not quite the concern it had once been when sentient robots from the future had conspired to kill him and the entire human race, but it still weighed heavily on his mind. The bitterness of those circumstances still festering deep inside.

He slapped the screen in annoyance as it displayed a mess of white noise and lines, the latest rent increase in rent apparently money badly spent. He pushed the switch down on the intercom and heard the tinny sound of cars roaring past from outside filter in. "Yeah?"

A voice that the paramedic had done his very best to forget about crackled in reply. "Charley? It's Sarah … We need to talk. Can I come in?"

He gritted his teeth, frustration threatening to boil over. She'd only ever come to him when the chips were down, when the shit had hit the fan and someone needed to pick her up again. The pit of his stomach quivered and for a moment he genuinely thought about flicking the intercom off and going back to his shower - not sure if he could be that person she needed again.

He brought his fist down on the entry button, sighing as he did so. Crossing over to a chipped wooden desk by the window he pulled open one of its drawers and slid a pistol out from the darkness, checking the magazine. If Sarah were here, that probably meant those things were here and he'd learned a painful lesson about defending himself before.

Charley strode over to answer the single knock on the door, his head snapping back brutally as a powerful fist caught him just underneath the chin as soon as he'd pulled the door halfway open. He fell backwards, spluttering and coughing, pain and confusion riddling his features. He squeezes his eyes open and shut, glancing up at the woman stepping into his apartment standing tall in high-heels and a sky-blue dress, long blonde hair spilling over her shoulders and glassy, utterly vacant eyes fixed on him.

He'd seen that expression before. She was one of them.

Pistol still held in his hand he brought his aim to bear and squeezed the trigger three times, the first round spinning a scant few inches away from the woman's ear and missing the mark while the second and third drove through her forehead and cheek, spilling not a drop of blood as they created waves in the flesh around their impact points, as if the bullets had skimmed across pools made of elemental mercury, or some other liquid metal.

Charley ignored the pain in his jaw as he rolled to the side, three more rounds missing their target completely to embed themselves in the wall behind the blonde's head and shattering a generic photograph of a cityscape hanging on the wall, sending glass shards tumbling to the floorboards. The wounds that would have killed any normal person were already invisible as the woman took two long steps to stand over him, as if he the bullets had never struck her.

The hot, clear water circling the bath's drain from the shower nozzle above was buried under a thick pall of masonry dust and fist-sized chunks of plaster exploding out from the wall that separated the bathroom from the living room. The tiles which lined the side of the bath itself cracked under the weight of the body which crashed through, arms falling imply into the dirty grey water and head lolling to the side to reveal a red stain where it had struck the tile behind.

The Terminatrix strode through the large hole in the ruined wall, breaking through the occasional warped piece of wood still stretching across the gap. Lifting an arm that had transformed into a bristling cannon Skynet held the maw of the glinting weapon under the concussed Charley's chin and lifted his eyes up to meet pitiless green orbs.

"Where is Sarah Connor?" She asked mechanically.

"You're like a Swiss army knife huh?" He laughed, his chuckle descending into painful coughs as a trickle of blood leaked from the corner of his mouth. "Can't you rustle up a clue on the end of that arm?"

Skynet cocked her head to the side, eyes slightly narrowed as the answer to its question was interpreted. The conclusion was that the data equalled zero, or negative, or no. Removing the barrel from under his chin the blonde took a firm hold of his bruised throat with her remaining five-fingered hand and hurled Charley back through the ruined wall, his ankle catching on a steel support with the audible snap of breaking bone.

The paramedic gasped in pain as he sprawled across the floor, agony searing through his spine and his ribs as he felt the energy of the impact with the floor spread through his body. Even his natural instinct to cradle his broken ankle came second to the arching of his back up from the floorboards. A combination of the pain in his body and the anger at his circumstance keeping him conscious.

It had been a long since Sarah had left him, without a reason or an explanation. Whenever she reappeared, begging for his help or relying on him his life always broke apart like the glass from the photo he'd shot earlier by mistake; the shards of what had once been a happy relationship burying themselves into his flesh like the ribbons cut into his back by the same glass he had apparently landed on.

Charley blinked, trying to clear his swimming vision as the Nordic features of the Terminatrix appeared above him. "Where is Sarah Connor?"

"Fuck you!" He spat, swinging a fist with all the energy remaining in his body and driving it into the side of her head, which snapped to the side under the tremendous force of the blow. Blue eyes turned slowly back to regard the broken man, utterly unable to understand him outside of its strict prison of logic.

Pressing the cannon that still made up her left arm against Charley's face, those same blue eyes did not close, or even narrow under the otherwise blinding muzzle flash which seared the floorboards and blackened the walls surrounding. Bringing the multiple barrels of the weapon up to her face for inspection, Skynet watched the crimson stains splashed along the casing disappear, becoming one with the liquid metal as it returned to five fingers - each sporting fingernails coloured a bright red.

Sarah's eyelids flickered up rather than flash open, the dream world leaving her peacefully and slowly with contentment and relaxation rather than the nightmare, or the waking dream that saw her wake in a silent scream, body and sheets soaked with cold sweat. She fidgeted slightly, finding the gurney's mattress to be much softer, warmer and more comfortable than it had been last night. A half-open eye glanced at the ambulance trolley across the cavern, widening to be joined by both eyes staring in confusion.

Titling her head ever so slightly, she saw a long shapely leg stretching out across the stony floor, a hand across its soft thigh - her hand across a soft thigh. A creeping sense of realisation began to dawn on her, as she became aware of a hand cradling the small of her back which had been - and still was - so comforting Sarah hadn't realised it was there.

She turned her head upwards, resigned to meeting bright blue eyes staring down. Instead she saw Cameron's head titled back against the cavern wall, eyes closed and lips together. Her brow furrowed and if Sarah hadn't known better she would have said the Terminator was sound asleep. "Cameron?"

When no answer was forthcoming Sarah felt rising panic in the pit of her stomach motivate her to sit up, her own strong hands curling around Cameron's slight shoulders and squeezing forcefully - had Cromartie's repairs failed? Had something happened during the night? A hand swept along Cameron's shoulder, cupping her cheek and ear and then along her head. Sarah was relieved to feel nothing but brown hair - her Chip was still in place.

"Good morning," The Terminator greeted warmly, her eyes flashing open so quickly as to make Sarah jerk back in surprise.

"Jesus Christ," The older woman muttered, shaking her head. "Where have you been up here?" She gestured gently tapping a finger against Cameron's temple. "Anyone would have thought you'd fallen asleep."

"I was trying to simulate sleep," She nodded. "I disengaged my Chip from my autonomic systems and allowed my mind to "wonder". I didn't risk your safety - I would have been ready to act if anything had happened."

"You seemed pretty out of it to me," Sarah replied, unconvinced. Cameron shook her head slightly, those bright beautiful eyes drawing the older woman's full attention. "You are not a danger to me. You don't count."

"I'll take that as a compliment," Sarah teased, her joke interrupted by the rustling of the plastic sheet at the cavern's entrance as Cromartie stepped through, stooping slightly to fit his lanky frame under the rounded ceiling. His features blank and expressionless as usual.

Sarah, for reasons difficult to explain aloud began to pull away from Cameron - the pair still entwined from the night before, wilting under the T-888's intimidating if neutral gaze. She moved only the slightest inch before hands much stronger than hers held her firm, without being painful. The older woman glanced into eyes that she could almost swim into, bottomless orbs of the clearest blue like the depths of the greatest oceans separating continents from each other.

She felt the discomfort subside, turning her attention back to Cromartie. Sarah came to realise that the larger Terminator had no reaction to the clinch; no opinion on the surprising moment of intimacy he had seen and absolutely nothing to say regarding it. The irony that in this way, he was more accommodating than Derek or maybe even John was not lost on her.

"I monitored several emergency radio calls last night," He began. "The Police were called to attend a suspected homicide at Campo de Cahuenga High School. One Charles Reizeger, the school's head of Creative Arts, had been found in his office by cleaning staff. There was significant damage to both the office itself with confidential documents regarding Students stolen and the body which displayed severe--"

"We understand," Cameron interrupted, Sarah watching the smaller Terminator's jaw set and her eyes cool. She suspected that Cameron had just moved from emulating sadness to replicating it, although it was hidden so well that she could not be sure.

Cromartie skipped to the next on his impromptu briefing. "I monitored a report filed by an EMT responding to a report of struggling and gunfire in an apartment block in the east of the city. He confirmed one dead male suffering severe physical injuries as well as extensive burn marks in the apartment's living room which did not match any ballistics pattern he had witnessed before."

The T-888's eyes flicked towards Sarah. "The dead male was identified as Charley Dixon."

It was Cameron's turn to watch the more obvious signs of the fury beginning to build quickly in Sarah's features - her skin flushing a deep red, lower lip trembling and the hand which had rested on Cameron's thigh beginning to tighten its grip to the point where any normal person might have winced. Climbing to her feet she stalked over to the wall and snatched up the pistol she had let slip from her grasp the night before.

Cocking the chamber, Sarah marched up to Cromartie so that she stood a few inches from his chest, her eyes boring into his, both unflinching. "This ends now and it ends tonight."

"We don't know it was Skynet," Cameron offered in yet another example of replicating human traits, the need to hope even when the evidence was all to the contrary. The T-888 had no such example and his stark conclusion was the same as the woman he intended to save the life of, only so he could capture her at a later date. "There was one further report of interest - A house was broken into on South Sycamore Street and destroyed."

Cameron and Sarah's eyes met each other, their faces betraying the truth.

"As I thought," Cromartie considered, cocking his head to the side. "Since I was unable to locate your residence even during months of investigation it is unlikely any other Terminator could succeed where I did not. It is likely Skynet somehow learned of John Connor or your enrolment in Campo de Cahuenga and visited the premises to gain your address - obviously the High School does not keep that information on-line."

"It's a dinosaur," Cameron replied as if the T-888 had any hope of understanding. Cromartie frowned, moving swiftly on. "I assume that once you escaped me, you began to move your safe location but did not complete it before we met again - this means Skynet had obtained all the intelligence that remained in 2552 Sycamore Street, as well as the contents of your computers."

"John destroyed them," Sarah added with a shake of her head, fingers still coiled tightly around the grip of her pistol. "Pretty thoroughly from what I saw before we left."

Cameron's eyes focused on Sarah, revealing what her voice did a moment later. "It won't matter to Skynet. It will have accessed them."

"Charley Dixon's address was most likely obtained from an email address on your system. Skynet then visited his home and attempted to find out whether he knew where you were."

Sarah nodded, pushing the sorrow of the terrible news just deep enough so that she could focus on the act of vengeance, of retribution. She would greave then Skynet was in pieces at her feet. "Charley won't have told them anything even if he knew … He was a good man."

"If Skynet killed him it is logical that he did not reveal anything," Comartie agreed coldly. It is pursuing any and all leads as aggressively as it can. Subterfuge or stealth does not seem to be an issue despite the damage it is causing, while Charlie Dixon's apartment complex operated a single security door linking each tenant to an intercom and a camera. Since the door was not forced, Skynet must have entered in a guise which reassured him."

Sarah's shoulder slumped with inevitability. "What're you saying?"

"The evidence suggests we are dealing with a T-1000, or some other model employing liquid metal."

Cameron nodded in agreement, but her attention was entirely taken by the older woman who seemed to find this new fact particularly galling. Her chest heaved with exertion, sweat beginning to glisten against her flesh, fingers flexing nervously. Sarah sucked in a breath, glancing at Cameron and offering a very weak smile. "I faced one before, A T-1000 … It took everything we had to stop him. John lost more than we wanted to that day."

"John is not here," Cameron stated firmly. "He is safe, with Derek. As long as we're not part of society we'll be invisible to Skynet. It can't track what it never sees."

Sarah shook her head, "You're not thinking like a human yet, Tin Miss," She gestured with a finger tapping against her own temple. "The only reason I'm able to function out here, in the middle of nowhere even with everything you've done for me, is because it's only been a couple of days. If this were to stretch into weeks, months … Years? Away from John, living like a hermit, like I've sealed myself into a bunker and waited for Skynet to drop ten thousand bombs on my head and start Judgement Day all over again? While Skynet runs around killing anyone who might have ever seen my face in this State?"

"No," She repeated. "No person can live like that, and I won't. We take the fight to Skynet. She who dares wins, Tin Miss."

"Any Terminator model employing Liquid Metal will be very difficult to disable," Cromartie explained dispassionately neither fearing for his life or being particularly interested to risk it. "We have limited access to weaponry unless you have any hidden around the city?"

Sarah glanced at Cameron, both coming to the same conclusion. "If we survive this, we're going to have to go back to just worrying about you trying to kill us all. I'm not about to take you on a guided tour of our set-up. Forget it."

Cromartie took absolutely no offence, "We cannot spend more time in the city than is strictly necessary to bring Skynet to battle on our terms. It will be monitoring the entire metropolitan area for us and it will know where we are almost instantly."

"How is that even possible?" Sarah spat, frustration boiling over in relation to the almost mythical powers of the Supercomputer.

"It is Skynet," Cromartie replied after a pause, perhaps the closest he could manage to a shrug. "Every closed-circuit camera, every networked system that connects to your banking details and the credit cards attached to them, every Law Enforcement and government database that might contain information regarding you is under Skynet's eye. If any of those systems are used by you, or detect you, or update their status regarding you, Skynet will know you re close."

Sarah did not understand how such a thing could be possible, how even a Supercomputer could monitor every piece of information in a city of millions while still walking and she supposed, talking. Cameron's words regarding the simply alien nature of the artificial intelligence when compared to humans returned to pacify her slightly. Maybe it was just impossible to understand.

"We've beaten it before," She said firmly, eyeing both Terminators carefully. "I know exactly where to do it."

Officer Richard "Mad Man" Mendez brought the patrol car to a slow halt, the engine revving down to splutter and then die as he turned the ignition off. A slanting, pale grey, rotting wooden fence lit brightly by the car's headlights stretched far into the gloomy night either side of the dented front radiator grille. Cutting the lights Mendez pulled the peaked cap from his head, setting it down on the passenger seat and scratching at the curly black hair that billowed out from underneath it. Tugging at his tie despite it being a clip-on, the officer leaned over and rummaged in the glove box.

The faintest flicker of fame lit up the dashboard as Mendez took a long drag of the cigarette, filling his lungs with the noxious smoke and then blowing back out through the crack in the driver's side window into the cold night outside. He leaned against the headrest, sighing in satisfaction and glanced at his watch - only three hours left on duty.

He glanced up at the faded, peeling sign that had once ordered people parking here to report to the main reception desk of Weyland-Yutai Metalworks (California). Decades ago the biggest smelter in the State and even up until a year ago running at a profit when most other mining and refining industries were flying abroad - faster than a Redneck on Southwest Airlines, he chuckled.

The place had gone declared bankruptcy over the warehouse tannoy after lunch apparently, or so Mendez had heard. A pre-recorded message left by the management who'd already left the parking lot in anticipation of a mob on their hands. The gates had been locked shut and the lights turned out by the end of the day.

The place had been left to rot for almost six months before the contents were sold to a Japanese Consortium who were in the process of contracting out the salvage to a local American firm; Mendez didn't much like the irony of an American company winning a contract from a Japanese firm to gut another domestic business but his beat was on the street, not the boardroom.

Taking another long drag, he exhaled the sweet cigarette smoke and glanced up to see a line of people at the very limit of his vision - through a broken section of the fence - hugging the ground in a stoop as they ran across the front facing of the metal works. "God damn it," Mendez whined at being forced to do his job before he was ready to start looking for trouble again.

Flicking the remains of the cigarette out the window, he snatched up the speaker unit from the patrol car's radio and the binoculars from the glove box. "Car four-four-one to Central."

"Four-four-one this is central, go ahead Mad Man," The tinny voice barked back.

"I've got trespass and a possible burglary in progress," Mendez brought the binoculars up to his eyes and twisted the focusing control. "Got three - two females, one male. Caucasian man at least six feet tall, brown hair and pale complexion. Both women Caucasian, one's sportin' long brown hair past her shoulders and the other's black hair, same length. They're pushing a trolley of some kind, full of something …"

Mendez blinked, rubbing his eyes and checking the binoculars again as if they might have lied. "Jesus Christ! It's filled with weapons - guns! I'm going to need backup here, Central."

A loud static-filled whine filled the car causing Mendez to drop the binoculars into his lap with a wince, desperately twisting at the controls and the volume to no avail. The whine dropped to a hiss of static and he tapped his finger against the receiver, frowning.

"A car is on-route to your location," A barely audible voice replied after a few moments. Remain where you are until it arrives."

"Roger Central," He responded with a hand to wipe the sheen of sweat making his forehead damp "Over and out."

He replaced the receiver on the console and plucked his hat back up from the passenger seat, pulling firmly over his head. Unlocking the latches holding the shotgun in place between the front seats he took the weapon into both hands, and puffed his cheeks out - a frown passing over his face.

He didn't remember reporting his location to Central.

Sarah ducked out of the chilly night air courtesy of the reinforced door Cameron had sheared from its frame with a single kick from standing, pulling her jacket around her tightly as she gazed through the gloom of the metal works. They stood in a cavernous hall almost as wide as it was long - the massive extraction fan she stood beside, creaking as it free-wheeled behind a shattered intake guard stood five times her height in size and the identical fan on the far wall seemed no bigger than a postage stamp in comparison.

The massive chamber was divided into catwalks which criss-crossed the factory floor, some hundred feet below ground level - the entire basement of the facility visible as a titanic concrete basin divided into multiple holding pens. Above their heads circular ladles wider than the extraction fan by Sarah's side and more than deep enough to accommodate a small monument hung from the ceiling, hung from enormous chain-driven pulleys.

She glanced at Cameron who was wheeling the weaponry down a central catwalk, then to a control room mounted midway up the reinforced wall and accessible by a one-man lift and emergency ladder, descending from a platform bolted to the room's side. As far as she could see it was the only defendable point in the metal works which granted a clear view of the rest of the facility while being easy to cut off access to. She just hadn't seen it as fast as Cameron had.

"The machinery plant is in the sub-basement," Cromartie said matter-of-factly. "I will try to restore main power. There is high-grade iron left in the ladles above - if the furnaces are reactivated it should provide enough material to fill the holding pens."

Resisting the urge to grimace at the brisque T-888, Sarah waved him off with a hand and set off after Cameron who had already begun to climb the emergency ladder, fully laden with the entire stock of weaponry held in a single hand.

"Are you frightened?" Cameron asked, her hands reassembling the machine gun expertly but her eyes on Sarah. The Terminator placed the oiled weapon back on the trolley, selecting a shotgun and working to remove its stock.

Sarah didn't look up immediately, almost laughing at the difference in herself towards the Terminator in just a couple of days. A week ago, she would have fired off a sarcastic barb, or told her to focus on the guns or if she'd been especially vulnerable, said yes and explained no further. Yet when she looked into the bright blue eyes that stared at her from her side, she felt the urge to answer the question totally.

"Terrified," She said simply. "This isn't just another Cromartie, or another Vic or Carter. It's Skynet; I know, it's not -the- Skynet - a copy of the source code but still, it's like the reason behind Judgement Day itself has come halfway through history just to kill me. Can't help but be a bit intimidated."

"You won't be killed," Cameron said strongly, her hands resting on the partially disassembled shotgun now forgotten. "I won't let it happen. You are too important to Derek, to John …

"You are too important to me," She paused, setting the shotgun on the floor and hesitantly reaching for Sarah's hand with her own. The urge to flinch was overwhelming, to turn and bolt - to continue to run as she'd ran for years before. To take anything new and strange and shout at it and scream at it, until it fitted back into the pattern of her old life.

The pain and suffering that they were about to go through in the coming hours meant that anything lost now would be lost forever.

She who dares wins.

Sarah took the smaller hand in hers, wrapping callused fingers around it tightly and pulling the arm forward so Cameron stood up, and with her free hand on the Terminator's hips, guided Cameron over to envelope her in a hug - Sarah's hands coming together in the small of her back. She could feel the smaller girl melt into her embrace and could feel her fingers locking together underneath her neck.

Sarah brushed her hands against the studded metal belt that circled Cameron's jeans, hooking her fingers underneath it and pulling them together. Both women eased their heads from the respective shoulder, slowly edging their necks back until their gaze was one. Noses almost tip-to-tip, Sarah studied the beautiful face that seemed riven with uncertainty.

Cameron struggled to process the feelings that flooded her Chip, threatening to confuse all her systems into chaos. Her skin prickled with goosebumps at the older woman's touch and she felt the blood substitute running underneath her flesh roar through the cleaning pump in her chest, making it thunder in its mounting. Whereas before each new replication, rather then emulation of an emotion had been an almost pleasant surprise now she had to chart her own course, without stumbling upon the truth.

"Are you okay?" Sarah whispered, concerned.

Cameron nodded dumbly, swallowing. "I'm not sure what to … I don't want to be a freak."

Sarah's mouth split to form a wide grin, nodding and tilting the young girl's head down to plant a long kiss on her forehead. She ran her nose along Cameron's hairline, enjoying the smell and running her hands down to squeeze the Terminator's shoulders warmly. One hand moved back to cup Cameron's chin, tilting her head upwards so that Sarah's red lips could graze their opposite number - a second of contact and then gone.

Her Chip was not sure how to process these sensations but it knew how powerful, how intoxicating they were and it issued only the directive for more. Cameron pushed her head forwards, lips smacking into Sarah's with force, the older woman groaning slightly in approval and slowly pushing the tip of her tongue against Cameron's lips which opened obligingly.

They melted into each other, lips locked together as they took turns to explore each other's warm, wonderful mouth in a kiss that was only broken when both women pulled back to gasp for air - one to retain her consciousness and the other to prevent overheating. They quickly closed the space that had opened between them, their foreheads pressing together as Sarah felt nimble fingertips brush and move through her hair.

With no reason to deny herself now, Sarah eased the scuffed, purple leather jacket from Cameron's shoulders, letting it drop to the floor to be forgotten. Tracing the metal studded belt in a circle to her hips, Sarah brought her hands upwards to the sides of a toned stomach, hands slowly cupping Cameron's breasts together and pushing them up gently.

Cameron's head lolled to the side, her mouth opening in a gasp as she struggled to understand the power of the feelings coursing through her body. Sarah began to squeeze and cup, pull gently and push, enjoying the uncoordinated scalp massage as aimless hands ran through her hair, losing their rhythm. Taking a hold of Cameron's plain black shirt she pulled it up to reveal the bra that held the curvaceous, supple breasts in check.

With a loud snap Cameron effortlessly tore the bra apart, the material flapping to the ground even as Sarah stole a single kiss from panting red lips and ducked down towards the rosy nipples crowning both mounds. She extended her tongue, grazing around the nipple and enjoying the salty tang of sweat. Feeling Cameron's back arch, silently begging for her touch, Sarah wrapped her mouth around the nipple and began to suck it ever so gently, ever so tenderly, almost losing her hold on it as the Terminator's body jerked unexpectedly.

Cameron's HUD lost all non-relevant feeds; outside temperature, air pressure, time and date, current objectives and environmental reminders disappearing as the entirety of her runtime was dedicated to this wonderful feeling. She could feel the pleasure not just individually but together, combining as one ecstatic, electrical crackle that seemed to be building and rising more like a wave gathering its strength before breaking on the shore.

Sarah moaned around the nipple she held in her mouth, feeling Cameron's hands working her own breasts, fondling them and squeezing them in a chaotic, haphazard way which just served to heighten her own excitement. She knew the girl was all but swept away and she did not need her to reciprocate to be sated; that was coming with Cameron's wave regardless.

Cameron knew what she wanted, but Sarah had seen it faster. The older woman fumbled with the metal-studded belt, unbuckling it and unbuttoning Cameron's jeans. The skin-tight, black-faded clothing slowly peeling down to reveal a bright yellow pair of cotton panties - mismatched against the now-destroyed black bra Sarah noted with amusement - hugging the apex of two shapely, glistening thighs.

Sarah took her mouth away from the engorged, erect nipple ignoring the whimper of disappointment. She climbed back up face-to-face, jerking her own head back as Cameron tried to steal a kiss. "What do we have here?" She purred, a hand cupping her cheek before sliding down to squeeze a breast, snake across her tummy and touch the waistband of her panties.

Cameron's hand covered Sarah's and tried to push it down but found she would not be able to without hurting the older woman. She sighed softly, accepting this would not be done the pace she would like, which would be instantaneous. The constant trickles of pleasure had long since melted together, rushing away from her senses like the tidal swirl of the sea leaving the sand, certain to return with crashing, rapturous results.

Feeling the wetness between her own thighs, Sarah smiled and wondered just how skilful Skynet had been with what lay hidden from view. Every single thing had looked perfect, tasted perfect and been greeted with groans and moans. Could a computer that could not understand a human truly somehow replicate its most intimate and unique part?

Damp curls brushed against Sarah's fingertips as she reached under into the panties, pushing her hand deeper. The dampness became slick, wet and sticky as her fingers paused a few inches below the waistband. Sarah could feel Cameron rubbing against her hand, willing her own. She had no reason to turn the Terminator down.

Sarah was pleasantly surprised when her index finger brushed the clit - both for its existence and the hip-bucking that almost tore the panties from Cameron's waist and forced Sarah to use her other hand to steady the girl, laying it on her well-defined ass, squeezing the cheeks and reaching round to plant a kiss on one.

"Do you want me inside you, Tin Miss?" She cooed, rubbing the engorged clit with the end of a finger. Cameron nodded dumbly, her Chip unwilling to spend the time or focus on words, instead watching and feeling the rest of her system fill with energy - fill with a buzzing, crackling zest that was rapidly approaching criticality.

Sarah pushed her hand down and her fingers around, until they pushed inside the folds of Cameron's sex; the heat palpable as she balanced the need to be careful considering the tightness fighting her fingertip and the groans coming from further up the beautiful girl's body. Coating the finger in sweet, sticky juices Sarah pushed it further inside, a free hand squeezing and flicking at a breast and the nipple that topped it.

Jeans still above her knees, top still wedged above her breasts Cameron thrust herself on to the finger as her HUD turned to white - all instruments, all readings, all vision gone in a blinding flash of colour that pushed her past the point of no return. The wave crashed back to shore in a foaming, roaring, tumulus impact which seared her consciousness and almost blasted it free of her jerking body.

Sarah pressed her face against Cameron's toned stomach, planting a kiss next to the belly button and smiling as she held the girl securely and felt, watched and listened to her ride the wave out. Slowly pulling the finger free and granting herself the pleasure of the taste, letting the sweet, tangy spice roll around her mouth Sarah moved her hands to Cameron's hips, glancing up at the girl and her face.

Cameron's eyes flickered open and her HUD restored itself, her Chip coming back on-line after rebooting and her gaze falling on the woman who had it made it all possible. The Terminator did not think she'd been off-line for one hundred and twenty seconds but could not recall anything between the flash of pleasure which had been overwhelming, and opening her eyes to see Sarah staring up at her.

The look of contentment on the raven-haired beauty suggested the reboot had been far quicker.

Sarah lay Cameron down on the edge of the trolley, carefully pulling her top back down and tugging her jeans back up around her still-quivering thighs. Leaning over the girl, planting a delicate kiss on those inviting red lips, she cocked her head to the side in a perfect imitation of Cameron, "How do you feel, my Tin Miss?"

Cameron smiled, resting her head on the edge, "Almost Human."

"Fucking hell!" Martinez hissed, smacking his hand against the glass and the officer beyond while trying to control the hammering of his heart and the close call with his underwear. "Sneakin' up on a guy with a shotgun? It's not clever, is it!" He grumbled.

Pushing the door open and snatching his flash light from the passenger seat he straightened his cap, shaking his head slightly at the portly, bushy-bearded officer who'd responded to his call for back-up. "What's your name, buddy?"

The officer continued to stare at Martinez blankly, several seconds passing in silence. "Connor," He replied eventually, "John Connor."

"Haven't seen you down at the station before John," Martinez wiped the sweat from his palms on his trousers, taking the shotgun into position and fixing the flash light to the barrel. "You a new transfer in or something?"

"Yes," Connor replied, drawing his service pistol and beginning to move forward through the shrubs and scraggly bushes. Martinez scratched his forehead, frowning. "You just want to head in, see if they'll give themselves up?"

"Yes," Connor repeated, stepping through a breach in the fence and disappearing behind a rusting piece of sheet metal.

"Suit yourself," Martinez replied with a shrug of his shoulders and an irritated sigh. He knew manpower was down and recruitment had tanked - what with the news that prospective police officers might actually have to confront criminals - but filling the department with the not-so-bright and foreigners would hardly make a difference. "Fucking immigrants," He sighed.

Sarah blinked several times as a powerful shaft of light burst into life above her head, repeating in rows of five abreast for the entire length of the high ceiling above their heads. Standing beneath the control room on one of the two catwalks to cross the entire factory over the furnaces below, her eyes followed Cameron as she made her way down the ladder.

Having cleaned themselves up as best they could, exchanged a tight embrace and a few kisses - some longer than others - they'd parted to steel themselves for the battle that would go a long way to deciding the future of not only Humankind but also Machine. They had no more than a few hours at most to prepare.

"Are you still frightened?" Cameron asked, handing the freshly oiled pistol to Sarah and letting her fingertips linger on the older woman's hand as she felt the weight of the weapon. "Terrified," Sarah answered with a smile, ignoring the frown that creased the Terminator's features. "Still as scared as before," She clarified. "But now I've got you to worry about too."

Cameron pursed her lips as if she made to argue, but instead turned away and headed back up the ladder, her bright blue eyes lost in thought. Reminding herself that the girl had plenty to learn about being human, a shadow cast over her face reminded Sarah that some still had everything to learn.

"I have restored power to the facility," Cromartie announced as if the bright lights overhead did not make it obvious. "The furnaces have been lit, but they will take approximately a further ten minutes to reach temperature, and a further five minutes to heat the first ladle to temperature."

"Wonderful," She congratulated sarcastically, pulling an AK-47 from the arms dispensing trolley and handing it over to the T-888 who instantly checked the stock, magazine, firing pin and sight expertly. "Don't get any silly ideas," She cautioned, Cromartie showing no sign of having even heard the raven-haired woman.

"You're with me," She gestured, craning her neck up to the control room. "Cameron!" Sarah shouted, a face framed by long brown hair edging out from the platform. "Let's go - I want to set up the tripwires at the door."

One thing about having an army of Terminators at your service - and by army she meant two - was that when Sarah had said she wanted a welcoming surprise for Skynet through the only entrance in the entire reinforced building, she had been able to watch devious tripwires, sensitive pressure switches and complicated radiation meters combined to present an unavoidable trap in half the time it would have taken a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers platoon to make the attempt. Returning to the trolley midway along the catwalk to retrieve the plastic explosives that would deliver the actual surprise, Sarah took a few deep breaths and steadied herself. Skynet would be through that double door in a few short hours.

The door flew open at the sole of a heavy boot, two blinding flash lights shining from a hand, and the barrel of a shotgun respectively. Sarah held her hand over her eyes, shielding them from the worse of the light. She caught sight of the glimmer of golden shield-shaped badges, and knew almost instantly that two particularly dutiful, if stupid Police officers had stumbled into the middle of a primed battleground.

"Put your weapons down!" Marinez yelled, making it obvious in on uncertain terms that the shotgun he wielded was not for show. He turned the barrel towards a young girl, one he'd seen earlier with brown hair, petite features and bright blue eyes. "Don't do anything stupid, darlin'," He barked, eyeing up the broad-chested man climbing to his feet beside her.

Both Terminators turned at the same time to regard Sarah, who shook her head. She wouldn't kill two men who'd just stumbled into the very wrong place at a very long time to do their duty. Technically they weren't supposed to be here.

Martinez stepped forward but felt a vice-like grip almost crush his shoulder. He resisted the urge to yell in pain, instead stepping back and around towards Connor, his face twisting into an angry scowl. For his part Connor's face was utterly devoid, simply gesturing with the end of his flash light to the tripwires and sensors arranged where foot would have fallen.

"Jesus Christ!" Martinez spat, his eyes instantly narrowing and his aim back on the three. "What the fuck are these?"

"Booby traps," Cameron answered honestly. "They're not armed. Don't panic."

Those words seemed to stir Connor into action as he pulled his service pistol out from its holster behind Martinez, and pressed the barrel into his colleague's back. Squeezing the trigger twice Martinez's whole body jerked, his duty uniform tearing in two places which quickly merged into a single irregular circle of blood as he wheezed, doubling over and dropping the shotgun to the floor.

He took a final, ragged breath, his hands slick with the blood he wiped futility from his chest. Panicking, terrified brown eyes darted around before growing sluggish, his gaze unfocused. He crashed to his knees, triggering the tripwires and sensors that weren't yet wired to any actual explosives. He tipped over, the side of the head hitting the catwalk with a thud, his eyes glassy and open as he did so.

Connor dropped the pistol to the floor, stepping over the corpse of Richard "Mad Man" Martinez and advancing on Cromartie and Cameron. Realisation dawned on the leaner of the two models first, blue eyes turning towards Sarah filled with urgency. "Skynet! Run!"

Connor's bushy black beard began to fluctuate, the hairs melting together until it formed a rolling mass of black that turned to silver, disappearing back into his flabby face. His chin shrank, his skull compressing until it became more chiselled, more angular. Large, slab-like hands stretched and narrowed until they were feminine and tapered.

A gut fed on too many rich meals lost all of its bulk, shrinking below the waist and increasing in size above to form breasts. Finally the dark blue duty uniform lightened to the same shade as the sky in the day, sleeves retreating to just below the elbows. Scraggly black hair brightened to golden blonde, growing exponentially until it flowed over the shoulders. Sickly grey eyes flashed instantly to emerald.

Heavy workboots melted into delicate feet leaving only three straps of fabric across the top, tipped forwards on high heels that emerged from the soles of the feet themselves.

Sarah was transfixed by the sight - unable to look away but becoming more nauseous by the second. She wretched, feeling the pit of her stomach finally twist round on itself as she bent over, hands on her knees. Spit mixed with the watery, insubstantial vomit that was all that remained of the coffee and bread that of days of wilderness survival spilled out on the catwalk.

Shaking her head, growling to try and restore control she staggered back up, turning and running as fast as she could manage away from the Supercomputer.

Cromartie stepped into the breach as soon as the last traces of the liquid metal had solidified - being more than aware that to strike while it changed shape was to lose a limb. A first thrown with all the strength of a mechanical man smashed into the blonde's forehead, the massive energy of the impact forcing her to take a step backwards to keep her balance. A second and a third blow rained down on Skynet so that it fell back against the door from the flurry of devastating punches.

Cromartie was thrown fully twenty feet backwards as he took a step forwards without shielding himself - the instep of a foot being driven into his ribs with outrageous force from a standing kick, the catwalk physically shaking and groaning under the strain of the heavy Terminator crashing back down. Cameron took her chance and with the strength in her arms, held the muzzle of a machine gun steady even as she squeezed the trigger to full automatic; the magazine emptying itself in seconds with a deafening roar of lead.

The Terminatrix was virtually unrecognisable from the waist up - clothing, flesh and features covered by a blanket of silver bullet holes that did not completely end until the knees. Hundreds of flowing, metallic wounds that stayed constant only for a moment before beginning to melt together, so that any scrap of blue or any patch of skin which had survived between the rounds that had struck home disappeared.

Cameron's eyes travelled up from the waist of the woman, watching the damage an entire machine gun drum had wrought being undone as if it had never been fired - as if Cameron had not even bothered to squeeze the trigger. Blue orbs met emerald and for a second neither moved, before both stepped forward to strike. Neither got the chance as the roar of a shotgun gouged a silver hole in the taller woman, throwing the Terminatrix to the floor. Turning her head back Cameron's eyes glanced over the T-888 laying flat out on the catwalk, save for the raised barrel of the gun and the head held perfectly in the air to acquire the shot.

Both Terminators quickly retreated to the midway point of the central catwalk, availing themselves of the remaining weaponry on the trolley. Cromartie headed back towards the control room with the clanging of boots against grating, while Cameron held her ground - a variety of shotguns, rifles and carbines at her disposal. Sarah fell somewhere between, her trusty pistol held in her sweaty palms, back pressed up against the reinforced concrete wall which supported the control room above her head.

Cameron lowered her eyes to the weapon at hand for a moment, replacing the ammunition and snapping the rifle's breech closed again. When she looked up Skynet had climbed back to her feet without the slightest sign of a wound; going as far as to regenerate the clothing that would have torn with every bullet.

The T-X stalked forwards towards the T-2000, the air ringing as a high-velocity rifle round punched straight into the blonde's shoulder, creating a deep, throbbing wound in the liquid metal but failing to pass straight through despite the calibre and the devastating energy it should have imparted. A second and a third round found their mark with expert marksmanship, forcing Skynet to one knee simply to avoid being blown back down the catwalk.

The sound of grinding gears and poorly-oiled chains snapping against rusting support bolts echoed down from the ceiling as one of the impossibly heavy, badly pitted ladles began to move from the furnaces, away from the control room and towards the duelling Terminators two-thirds of the way along the catwalk. The winches pulling them along painfully slow, the ladles themselves swinging side-to-side with more speed than their movement back-to-front.

Cameron fired the last of the rifle's high-velocity rounds, scoring another three direct hits across Skynet's chest and stomach and succeeding in sending the Terminatrix down to the metal floor. There was no time to celebrate or congratulate herself - the magnification of her HUD already showing the liquid metal running lazily into the bullet holes, filling them as simply as a water from a pitcher into a glass, solidifying into blue cloth, or pale flesh and leaving no trace.

Dropping the spent rifle, Cameron selected a submachine gun for each hand, duel-wielding MP7s and spitting a double muzzle flash of chattering death in a wide field of destruction as bullets rebounded against handrails and the grating. The T-X had only just climbed up from all fours before a brutal track of impacts across her neck and face forced her head to twist sharply to the side, the centre of the Terminatrix's balance shifting and sending Skynet back to the catwalk grating.

Cameron turned her head to glance up at the ladle still some distance behind her, travelling so slowly that she was forced to use the motion sensors of her HUD to confirm it was moving at all. A more furtive glance at her ammunition and weapon supply made it obvious that she would not be able to sustain the rate of fire needed to keep the T-X at bay for long.

Sarah's nose wrinkled at the stink of sulphur that invaded her nose, bubbling and hissing over the blackened rim of the ladle passing over her own head carrying the tons of fiery, boiling molten metals. For the briefest moment she glanced at Cromartie through the dusty windows of the control room above and wondered whether he might release the molten mass on top of her - vaporising the skin from her bones and her bones from the air itself so that nothing remained.

The whine of the chain drives mounted in the roof did not stop and however slowly, however ponderously the enormous container swung lazily onwards and away from her. Sarah felt her jaw set as her attention returned to Cameron who had yet to suffer a scratch in response to the devastating amount of fire she poured into Skynet - thousands of rounds fired of which Sarah liked to think every single one hit its mark.

For all the marksmanship and skill, the T-X was slowed only by most basic law of physics - of action and reaction. Eventually the heaviest gauge of ammunition would be gone, the deadliest weapons spent and there would be nothing to stop the blonde Terminatrix from unleashing its full arsenal. Already they had paid for the torrent of fire with almost six feet of precious catwalk - the distance Skynet had covered since the fire zone had first been swept.

The MP7s in Cameron's hands spat their last bullets at almost the same time, the storm of fire being replaced by the click-click-click of empty magazines cycling nothing into empty chambers. Dropping the sub machine guns to the catwalk. Sparing a glance at the ladle only now coming into position above her head, Cameron snatched up the final weapon with the power to slow the blonde - cocking the shotgun which had been used to such good effect by Cromartie earlier.

Skynet's emerald eyes were destroyed by a direct head shot; mouth, nose and ears wiped from the flesh by the kinetic energy of a shotgun shell at point-blank range. Head snapping back, the T-X simply fell backwards limply, arms coming to rest where they fell outwards and landed, feet splayed apart on the grating.

The basic definitions of the human face had begun to redraw themselves a moment after the Terminatrix fell to the floor - nostrils, orbital sockets, gums and cheekbones rising up from the shimmering grey oval on top of an otherwise fleshy, normal neck. Cameron forced the last round into the barrel of the shotgun, snapping the breech closed and looking back at the worried features of the woman she had come to love.

The whine of the chain drive in the roof died abruptly as the ladle stopped in its position, finally. Cromartie placed a hand on the release lever, simply waiting for the clearest shot of the T-X alone to drop the bubbling molten mass. Cameron stepped forward, thrusting the barrel of the shotgun into the embryonic features of the Terminatrix's regenerating face, finger curling around the trigger to wipe the silver skull clear and buy enough precious moments to step back and release the ladle above.

A high-heeled kick swept Cameron's feet out from underneath her as she squeezed the trigger, the shotgun discharging its final shell loudly into the air and not the features of the T-X - who had now recovered enough of her face to fix her green eyes on the Terminator opposite.

Sarah cursed loudly, balling her fists as the final shotgun shell missed its mark and finally gave Skynet the window it needed to break the offensive fire zone. She cocked a round into the pistol's chamber, raising her weapon before a loud, blaring warning klaxon began to reverberate through the facility so loudly that the handrails of the catwalks shuddered.

The older woman's eyes widened, recognising the sound. She craned her neck around and up towards the control room to see Cromartie reach for the release valve. A valve that would dump tons of molten metal down in an irresistible, flaming waterfall crashing down on top of the T-X and Cameron. A bubbling, steaming river of heat that would strip long brown locks from her slight features and boil off the pale flesh.

The muzzle of Sarah's pistol followed her eyes, squeezing the trigger as soon as the direction of fire was vaguely matched with Cromartie's head. Loud bangs echoed trough the metal works as the windows of the control room, thick with months of grime and sulphur run-off shattered and exploded spectacularly in splinters of glass and wood. The T-888's face disappeared as he ducked the wild attack, his focus on the release lever forgotten temporarily.

The unmistakable sound of Sarah's gun firing pulled Cameron's attention away from the T-X just as the imposing blonde drove the flat of her palm into the smaller Terminator's chest, flesh-covered metal striking skin-wrapped metal and sending Cameron crashing into the handrail which bent outwards under the assault. Forcing her to hook her arms behind her back to avoid being thrown into the furnaces roaring beneath, she groped for the catwalk edge with her feet.

"You metal bastard," Sarah hissed, her pistol tracking across the bullet-ridden exterior of the control room, eyes patiently waiting for any sign of the cold son of a bitch. Unable to take her finger away from the trigger or remove the magazine to check how many rounds she had left, the feeling in her twisting gut suggested it was not many.

Blank features rose up from behind a shattered bookshelf and Sarah took the opportunity, squeezing the trigger four times and feeling the kickback of three firings and an empty chamber on the fourth. The slightest satisfaction of seeing one of her rounds nick the side of Cromartie's face to the metal, was quickly tempered by the fact that there was nothing to stop the T-888 destroying Skynet as he had pledged to do, at the cost of killing Cameron.

Sarah ran around to the emergency ladder leading up to the control room, beginning to scale it in sheer futility and panic even as the warning klaxon which had continued blaring since Cromartie had first disarmed the locking pin was silenced. Sarah's horrified face could not look away as the bottom of the creaking ladle fell away, a thick blanket of steam bursting outwards that hid the molten fire for only as long as it took gravity to take control.

Cameron watched the left arm of the T-X begin to bulk, the sleeve of the blue dress widening and become angular and silvery. Fabric creases straightening into mould lines, fingers began to retreat into the hand until there were only three remaining. Each widened to form a barrel whose base fitted snugly with the firing chamber of a powerful cannon, that had been summoned in only seconds.

Feeling the heat permeating her flesh a full second after the ladle had dumped its load overhead, even as the bristling weapon on the end of the T-X's arm hovered a few inches from her temple. Cameron rolled away from Skynet to stand, taking a short jump through the air to land with her feet together before spring boarding against a railing.

Her second leap become more missile-like as she stretched her hands above her head, fingers wrapping around a hanging loading chain even as the section of the catwalk she had jumped from a moment before flashed yellow to orange to red, and white as it melted into slag and dripped to the furnaces below. The Terminatrix, having been in the midst of preparing to deliver a killing blow to Cameron had been more-flat footed, executing a side-roll a little too slowly.

A vertical sheet of molten metal wrapped in coruscating white flame fell through the blonde's left shoulder, the liquid metal instantly boiling off to gaseous metallic atoms, the finer components and actuators vaporised in as many seconds, so that nothing remained of the limb save a thin band of fluctuating silver points which danced and merged, but could not advance below the blackened angle.

The Terminatrix was quickly back to its feet, paying no heed to her lost arm and instead leaping across the bubbling, jagged breach between both sides of the central catwalk melted away by the release above.

Cromartie leapt through one of the shattered windows of the control room, his knees bending only slightly to absorb the energy of a jump of some fifty feet back down to the catwalk. Sarah resisted the urge to reload her pistol and put every bullet it held into the back of his head, reasoning there would be a time and a place for evening the score and it would be after they'd survived this.

Cameron was the first to cross the newly-disabled T-X, delivering a hard kick to the calve of the blonde, reducing it to one knee before driving her elbow into the side of the head and the forearm to smash under the chin of the Supercomputer. Adjusting immediately the single remaining arm of the Terminatrix thrust upwards to parry another kick, wrapping around Cameron's thigh and twisting it with a powerful torque to bring the smaller of the pair down against the steel, hard on her stomach.

Ignoring the blow, Cameron climbed back to her feet in time to feel her head snap back against the sole of the boot delivered to her temple, taking a step forward to keep her balance and stepping directly into a thunderous uppercut which lifted her entire frame into the air. A sharp spear of liquid metal thrust out from the extended - and only remaining - hand of the T-X, sparking against the grating as Cameron instinctively rolled to the left.

Sweeping Cameron up from the catwalk by her throat as if she weighed less than a small child, the blonde span in a single revolution and cast the lithe Terminator against the reinforced concrete wall underneath the control room.

"Cameron!" Sarah shouted, horrified and helpless as she watched the young girl crash into the wall, slide the twenty feet down to the floor and slump over onto her side. Sarah stepped forward to help her but felt the shadow of Cromartie step across to prevent it, his eyes fixed on Skynet it continued to advance. The T-888 roughly pushed Sarah backwards, snatching the pistol she held in her hands so she felt herself press into the concrete wall behind and know she could go no further.

Raising the commandeered weapon, Cromartie pulled the trigger and emptied the magazine into the exact centre of the T-X's forehead as he walked forwards with a purpose; seven impacts without a single visible scratch, or kink was not the most impressive opening move. Holding the pistol barrel as the handle to present the studier stock as a bludgeoning weapon, Cromartie smashed the pistol grip across the Terminatrix's face repeatedly, her head lolling to the side with each brutal impact.

Skynet's single remaining arm thrust outwards, taking a hold of the T-888 by the throat and easily lifting him off the ground, even as he continued to rain powerful blows down on the T-X's head, neck and shoulders. Rotating on the spot under the punishment Skynet took a side-step to the left - dragging Cromartie along for the ride - before sending the broad-chested Terminator into the air like a spinning top.

Sarah watched the T-888 tumble over the gap in the walkway from the earlier molten metal escapade, his body crashing against the edge of the other side rather than clearing it, folding painfully and then disappearing from view. She could not see any sign of Cromartie but knew the only thing between the walkway above, and the sub-basement floor below was a line of electric arc furnaces, more than capable of melting his alloys into gas.

Emerald orbs turned to focus on shallow blue eyes, as a palpable feeling of dread washed over her. The blonde T-X stalked forwards, looming over Sarah and making it clear there would be no salvation this time; there would be no saviour. Cameron remained off-line, her body still folded in half where the wall met the flooring and Cromartie had been cast to the furnaces with a single javelin throw. What hope did Sarah Connor have?

Five powerful fingers closed around her throat, Sarah's feet crashing and thudding in mule kicks that would have been debilitating to any creature of more flesh than a scant few centimetres down. Her own hands clawed desperately at the vice-like grip which had begun to squeeze the air from her lungs and the life from her body. Struggling as Skynet began to drag the older woman back across the walkway, Sarah could feel the heels of her combat boots dig into every strip of grating and stretch her legs painfully.

Coming to a halt in front of the railings, the T-X hauled Sarah up from the flooring so the tips of her toes pointed down were still a foot clear in the air. Her face began to burn red, her saliva becoming thick and choking in her mouth. Green eyes regarded her analytically, technologically, biologically but never emotionally.

"Talk to me!" Sarah hissed at Skynet, feeling her back prickle with sweat as the heat from the furnaces below warmed her flesh. "You've got a voice right? You remember words? Haven't you got anything to say? You're Skynet! This is your big moment!"

Sarah struggled anew, depleting the last of her energy reserves, her voice a harsh, guttural whisper. "Talk to me!"

Cameron's HUD flickered back to life, a single green line drawn on a circuit diagram map illustrating the new route her Chip had laid between her internal power source and motor functions. Powerful blue eyes snapped upwards and saw Sarah struggling against the iron grip of Skynet as it threatened to cast her into the furnaces below.

She made to stand when her eyes found Cromartie, straddling a support beam underneath the main gantry and bent over as if coiled - standing by to attack the moment the element of surprise was most in his favour. The two Terminators exchanged glances and nodded. They knew what they had to do.

Cameron could see the side of the main catwalk she stood on was sagging at the point which supported the considerable combined weight of the T-X and Sarah. Without the support of the destroyed middle columns, the entire weight of the surviving section on this side was carried by the coiled cable, embedded into a tensile post set into the concrete of the wall beneath the control room. Making her methodical way over by virtue of crawling on her hands and knees through the destruction and debris of the earlier shoot-out between Sarah and Cromartie, Cameron placed her hands around the tensile post.

She could not see Cromartie from this angle. If he was not ready, then Sarah would die by her direct hand.

With only the minimum amount of effort required Cameron sheared the post from the concrete collar, the coiled cable it supported unwinding almost instantly, the half-bridge section bowing and shuddering as it came to rely on only the bolts holding its furthest away edge.

"Talk to me," Sarah grumbled woozily, her eyes growing heavy in the choking grip. Her brow furrowed in confusion, eyes glassy and out of focus as she struggled to understand why things had begun shaking. Without warning she felt the grip around her throat break, as the T-X - down one arm - was forced to let go in an attempt to keep its balance. Remaining standing was an exercise in futility as the bolts connecting the far end of the walkway sheared away, tipping the entire catwalk over and dropping it straight to the furnaces below.

Sarah was dimly aware of the strong smell of sulphur, and the burning heat on her back. Trying to open her eyes as she felt herself twist in peaceful free-fall, strong arms snatched her back from her waking dream, crushing her head against a stiff shoulder as they flew through the air like a cannonball launched at speed. An outstretched hand, a jerking chain and suddenly they were still; not flying like before, but balancing above the dancing oranges and yellows of the welcoming fires below.

Everything seemed so warm.

The whine of the chain drives above began again as the linkages Cromartie - and Sarah by proxy of holding on to him - held tightly to were drawn up, shuttled along and lowered onto the opposite section of catwalk - still intact but now more a short platform, looking out over a massive factory space that had once been accessible via one long walkway.

Cameron took Sarah into her arms tightly, embracing her with all the feelings that had been stirred up to their peak only the shortest hour ago but had almost been doomed to loneliness a few moments before. Slowly feeling her mind return, lungs awash with smelly, if reasonably clean air, Sarah's legs threatened to buckle to a combination of weariness and terror and she leaned back on the handrail for support as hot tears threatened to break through decades of mental barriers.

Cameron pressed her forehead against the older woman's, their noses touching tip-to-tip briefly. Totally out of place in the moment, Cromartie dutifully stood behind the women, his own gaze turning to the dirty, rusty ladles rising up from the furnaces towards the ceiling, the automated smelting process at some point in the battle apparently having been activated. He cocked his head to the side in confusion, as one such lifting urn passed perilously close to them on the way upwards.

Sarah felt herself fall forwards out from Cameron's loving grasp, her temple smashing into the grating and causing her to cry out in pain as she felt something powerful tug her foot and her leg underneath the railings. Wrapping her fingertips round the grating Sarah felt the weight increase by a factor of ten and felt the metal her fingers were held around cut into her flesh, breaking the grip.

She slid out from under the railings and desperately threw a hand upwards - the lip of the catwalk slipping through her bleeding fingertips, nothing lying between her and the furnaces she had seemingly so nearly avoided earlier.

Cameron's hand broke through the grating itself, clamping around Sarah's wrist a moment before it became physically impossible to do so. Gritting her teeth as her elbow actuator was hyper extended beyond its limit, the Terminator glanced down and took in the silver endoskeleton that hung tightly from Sarah's left leg - emerald lights staring out from a shining skull that sported teeth arranged in a maniacal grin.

Cromartie casually lifted one leg over the barrier, the spent shotgun held in his hands. Methodically climbing down until he was roughly level with Sarah's knee. The T-X exoskeleton's skull rotated towards the T-888 with an audible whine, most likely realising what was to happen next but totally powerless to do anything but hold on.

Identifying the Chip access plug, Cromartie brought the stock of the shotgun down sharply across the T-X's skull, the metal reverberating with the powerful strike. He smashed the shotgun against Skynet's sensitive innards repeatedly for a fourth, fifth sixth, seventh and eighth time always on the same spot, precisely.

On the ninth impact the Terminatrix's skull jerked to the left, and then right, a high pitched whine filling the air. On the ninth blow, Sarah gasped in relief as Skynet's grip was broken. Gravity acted quickly to reclaim the endoskeleton and it began to spin as it tumbled away, single remaining arm grasping at the air itself. Such was the mass of the Terminator that no fiery plume splashed upwards when it broke the molten surface to slip quietly beneath the red and orange waves.

Feeling her back press against the walkway's floor, Sarah didn't try to hold back the tears that flooded freely. All the suffering and pain of the battle, all the lives lost and scattered before they had even made the decision to take Skynet to battle - a battle they couldn't directly win against an enemy that never existed singularly. A battle they couldn't win, yet were sitting exhausted but victorious as the flames below leached the last of the alloys from the T-X and reduced its unrivalled complexity to mere atoms, scattered on the wind.

Cameron's lips grazed Sarah's forehead. "How do you feel?"

"Almost human," Sarah sighed wistfully.

"We should go," Cromartie said finally, eyeing the cold corpse of officer Martinez where it had lain since the sudden end of his public service and life.

Sarah nodded, her chest still heaving, gratefully accepting Cameron's pale hand which pulled her up to her feet, and took her into a warm embrace.

"You do know the next time I see you, I'm going to kill you?" Sarah asked, utterly serious behind black sunglasses that made her expression impossible to read.

"Thank you for your time," Cromartie replied with as much a trademark as he knew, stepping back from the passenger door he had just closed as Cameron gunned the truck's accelerator. A loud wind picked up the loose sand covering the dusty pumps and the peeling signs and scattered it across the entrance to the garage - the disassembled remains of two vehicles peeking through the rotten shutter frames as the loud twangs of country-western filtered out of bulky silver cassette players.

"Thanks for the help," She added almost as an afterthought, nodding to Cameron who put the truck into gear and rolled away. Turning towards the winding, single-lane road they had driven down that stretched as far as the eye could see in the flat of South California, Cromartie cocked his head to the side. He began to walk along the roadside away from the filling station.

Skynet did not have faith in Sarah Connor like he did. She would yet lead him to John.

One way or another.

The End

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