metal and wire

metal and wire

For Arnold Swarzenegger.


One: Prelude

Cameron Phillips is born to Dave and Sandra Phillips in Des Moines, Iowa. From the ages nine to thirteen she has a gap in her teeth so wide she can fit a whole piece of popcorn through it. Everyone calls her Camerooni.

When she turns fourteen she pops her first zit, kisses her first boy, and sees her first tiny little blot of blood on her underwear.

When she turns fifteen she gets her driver's license and totals her car drag racing on the speedway. She's in the hospital for three months before she can walk again, and instead of making her scared something else happens: she feels invincible.

When she turns sixteen the world ends. It's pretty quick, and nothing like Cameron would have expected—in one moment she is painting her nails and tanning in the yard, and in the next the sky is burning up and almost everyone is dead. She goes to the basement and huddles behind her father's thick body.

Chopin's Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor plays on a CD player lost somewhere in the rubble.

Cameron emerges three days later to a work of dust and ash, vocal chords so frayed that for the rest of her life she will sound like a sixty-year-old chain smoker.

When she turns seventeen she meets John Connor. He is twenty and, like Cameron, bears a tattooed barcode on his arm. She can see him from her crouched position behind an old tank, gun tipped over her shoulder. He's nothing like what she imagined—he's skinny, with a little stubble shading his chin and cheeks, and a cigarette hanging out of the side of his mouth.

He looks just like any other soldier. Cameron stands, thinking that there's irony in the fact that her mother would have hated him if she'd ever brought him home. Imagine—the savior of the world, not a boy to show your parents.

The bullet rips through her before she even realizes that there is gunfire, and she goes down hard into the dirt (ash? rubble? God, did this really used to be L.A.?), the butt of her gun catching her chin and sending her teeth through her tongue.

She lays still, stunned, nose and mouth full of dirt. The screaming is indistinct and not hers, so she simply waits for it to stop. Maybe it's the shock but she feels no pain, only faint surprise.

She is tired. She wants to sleep.

"She alive?"

"Barely . . . she needs a medic like ten minutes ago."

"No time. She'll bleed out before you can find one. Bring me by bag, I've got some supplies there."

"Yes sir."

"Thank you. I need all the bandages and the little blue syringe in the front pocket." A warm pair of lips brushes her ear. "Listen to me. You're going to be okay. But I need you to trust me. Do you trust me?"

Her lips barely move; she's not even sure she manages any of the consonants; but somehow she whispers sleepily, yes.

"Good. Then this is going to hurt."

And then he stabs her.

All the pain her blessed shock had blocked breaks through, flooding her whole body, rocking her awake. Her worn, tired voice box cannot rally the energy to scream but she moans, lips sealed shut together. Four rough hands are binding her with any fabric they can find, and at each brush of their skin on hers every nerve in her arm screams.

"Stay awake," the voice commands. "If you fall asleep now you will never wake up, do you understand me?"

She cannot speak. She cannot speak.

She faints.

She wakes three days later in a bed that is not her own. Her right arm is set in a cast from the shoulder to the wrist, her stomach and chest bound so tightly that it is a struggle to breath.

"'Morning, sunshine."

She blinks blearily, looking for the source of the noise. Her head hurts. She turns slowly, being kind to her aching muscles, and her eyes bug.

John Connor, freshly washed, leaning against the doorframe, smiling down at her. "Um . . . hi," she croaks, and then blushes—she wanted to sound feminine and tired the first time she spoke to him, like the tired heroines of the movies; but exhaustion coupled with decimated vocal chords made her sound more like a frog with a cough.

He laughs, walking past the bed and taking a seat at the desk. "I hope it's all right that you're here. The infirmary was full," he says without looking at her, reaching for a pen. All his writing utensils are in a little white mug with the words World's Best Mom stretched across a big pink heart.

At her silence he turns to look at her, and catches her eyes on the cup. He smiles faintly. "It was my mother's," he tells her without a shred of hesitancy. "If you look inside you can see ash stains and little circles where she used it to put out her cigarettes."

"My Mom founded SWAT," she says, the corners of her mouth quirking up. "Southern Women Against Tobacco."

His eyes snap to her in faint surprise and then he grins. More importantly, he forgets about the pen and whatever he was going to use it for and puts his feet up on the bed. They talk about their mothers—his was an infamous warrior, the Sarah Connor, who taught him everything he knows about war and nothing about life except that the world will shit on you again and again and there is no use crying about it, so buy some goddamn toilet paper.

Hers was a housewife whose great joy was chairing committees (SWAT was just the tip of the iceberg) and going to church.

She falls asleep in the middle of a sentence and wakes up the next morning to find him crashed out on the couch. She feels guilty about taking his bed, but when she tries to mention this he fixes her with a look that makes her feel so small that she never says anything about it again.

Two weeks later she is fit to get back into society, her broken ribs healed and her shoulder back in motion. She thinks she might always walk with a faint limp but when she bemoans this fact to John he simply takes her hand and tells her he likes all her battle scars.

"They make you you," he promises.

Soon she is eating dinner with him every night and soon they are caught making out in one of the back storerooms; she laughs to think that the John Connor could be content with someone like Cameron Phillips—with her still slightly gapped teeth and her husky voice and her limp. But it seems that the more humanly fallible that she is, the more he loves her.

Even in the midst of war people meet and fall in love, but Cameron never thought she would be one of them.

He makes her Mrs. John Connor two days after her eighteenth birthday. It sounds stupid, but she made him wait until she was legal (had there really been a world where those kind of laws were priority?) because her mother wouldn't have approved of an underage union.

It's not much of a wedding—no ring, no guests, no dancing or getting drunk; they say I Do in the mess hall during dinner and then retire to his room for the rest of the evening. He has to wake up at six to go on a parole and she sleeps in until seven before going to get breakfast.

Nothing changes except that now she is tied to him for life, and if there were still such a thing as history books she would be in them.

Four months later she is dead.

It's a stray shot that catches her from the side—friendly fire. She's out before she hits the ground, bullet ripping through her head, and the last thing she sees is John, screaming, running towards her, gun flopping against his hip.

What happens afterwards is this:

He straddles her in his arms, screaming for a medic, for his bag, for something Jesus fuck, Cameron Cameron Cameron—

He holds her face to his, shaking, unable to let go (of this one thing, this one last thing he had to hold onto). Derek and Kyle Reese both peel him from her and take the body (oh god oh god she is just a body now) away, cast in the grave with all the others (there is only so much room for the dead although it is a world made of them).

Later, John will destroy everything in his room that remains human—the World's Best Mother mug, her clothing, his salvaged record player. He is tired of being human, of loving and losing and hurting like a human.

If fate would have him save the world, so be it. But damned if he will be her emotional plaything, too.

When he turns twenty-three Cameron shows up in his bedroom to kill him.

It is half-past three when she walks in, her old soldier's uniform replaced with something unfamiliar. And for a minute he thinks he must be in a dream, and then she moves forward and smiles at him and says, "Hi, John."

But there is no gimp in her step, no gap in her teeth, no croak in her voice. She sounds musical and pretty, like the heroines in all the movies, and her teeth are perfectly aligned. She is Cameron 2.0, a Cameron he could never have loved.

"What's your name?"

She takes another step forward. "Cameron," she says.

"What's your name?"

"Don't you recognize me? It's Cameron."

"What's your name?"

"It's—" She stops, giving him a familiar calculating gaze. Then she smiles again, this time without teeth. "TOK-715." He doesn't try to run as she gets into the bed and straddles him, her steel grip locking his arms at his sides.

"What is your mission?" He asks, breathing in. It doesn't smell like her, dirt and beer and gunpowder; she smells flowery, like a girl belonging in a world he doesn't belong to.

God, she looks young. Was she this young?

"To terminate you."

He laughs. "All right then. Do it." He hums: Nocturne in C-Sharp. Frederick Chopin. Her favorite.

It is then that the dogs bark and his door crashes inward; then that she is toppled to the floor and her Kinematics engine disabled. She lies immobile on the floor and he steps over her.

Derek Reese says, "God, John, I'm sorry."

His voice is calm. "How did they get it?"

"Get what?"

"Her body, Derek. How. Did they get. Her body."

He swallows. "They've been taking them for weeks now. We've only just noticed because . . . well, it's just not something you keep track of. They're using them to try and—I don't know—trick us. For machines they really fucking know how to make it hurt."

TKO-615 blinks up at him. He looks away. "Put her in the reprogramming room but don't touch her yet. I want to do it."

Derek hesitates. "John…"

"Do it," he commands sharply, and without further ado the soldier salutes and obeys.

John goes later to the room. TKO-615 is waiting, like the rest of them, her unsleeping eyes blinking across the room. He cuts a hole in her head, twelve centimeters across.

"Wait. What was that song you were singing?"

He looks down at her. She is his Cameron and not his Cameron, and all at once he feels like his mother.

Hating the machines so much it makes him sick.

"A death march," he says, and gives a vicious tug. The piece slides out easily and he hands it to a nearby soldier. "Give this to Diagnostics. Have them run through it, see what they can find."