Disclaimer: See Chapter 1
A/N: No, you're not seeing things. This is a brand new chapter. At long last. Wow, it's been what? Over a year. A lot of stuff has happened that's been keeping me from posting this. New job. The old computer died. Etc. But at last, here's FINALLY the update you've been waiting for. And just in time for the release of Terminator Genisys.
A/N2: I'm not sure if I actually want to see Terminator Genisys in theaters (as opposed to waiting for it to come out on DVD). I read the plot online... and honestly, I'm kinda on the fence about the whole thing - especially about one particular part regarding John Connor. I've actually slipped my thoughts on that subject in this chapter (see if you can find the reference)
A/N3: For anyone who gets lost while reading this, I would highly suggest rereading Chapter 54.
Chapter 74 - The Truth Will Screw You, Part II
October 1, 2027 - Seattle Sector
Departure Site Alpha
"I'll be gone for at least a week. Hopefully not much longer," said General John Connor. "I trust you can hold things down while I'm gone."
"Shouldn't be a problem," replied a self-assured Colonel Kara Thrace. "Latest intel indicates low hostile activity around Hyena Bunker and the surrounding districts. Just a handful of stragglers. Nothing we can't deal with."
"No unnecessary risks, Colonel," Connor warned. "You run into anything you can't handle, let Local Forces take care of it."
Kara gave a slight scoff. "I doubt that'll be necessary..."
Connor gave her a reproachful look. "I know you don't exactly like General Sloan, but you don't have that many men, and Hyena Bunker is not a fortress. I need you to keep your people safe. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir. Yes, it is."
"Good. Send reports to me daily via the usual secure channel. Don't expect a response though."
He glanced over his shoulder. "Are we ready, Cameron?"
Cameron emerged from the other side of the armored personnel carrier that was to take him out of Seattle. "Everything is prepared," she announced. "Recon reports our path out of this sector is clear."
Connor gave her a nod of approval. "Excellent. Let's move out."
"Yes, General." She turned to Kara. "Colonel," she acknowledged respectfully.
Kara flashed a friendly grin. "Take care of yourself, Cam."
"Of course." Cameron slid the APC's side door open and stepped aside, waiting for Connor to enter.
Connor turned back to Kara and held out a hand. "Good luck, Starbuck."
Kara shook his hand. "I won't let you down, Connor."
"I know you won't." Connor treated her with a brief smile before letting go.
He then proceeded into the back of the empty APC and took a seat. As he settled in, his hand absentmindedly wandered to the breast pocket of his trenchcoat. The CPU recovered from the sewer the other day was still safely tucked inside.
A sense of foreboding suddenly came over him. His mother's voice reverberated inside his head: There's a storm coming, John.
He frowned to himself, wondering if he was leaving too soon...
"Sir? Is there something wrong?"
Connor looked up and noticed Cameron, standing at the doorway, staring at him. Her normally stoic face held a look of concern.
"I'm fine, Cameron," he said quickly, giving her a reassuring look. "Nothing to worry about."
Cameron stared at him for a few more seconds, then nodded. "Very well." She stepped inside the vehicle and shut the door behind her.
Shaking off the unexplained worries, Connor cleared his throat and called out to the driver. "We're in, Corporal. Let's go."
The driver promptly responded, "Yes, sir."
A couple seconds later, the APC's engines rumbled to life and the vehicle began making its trek across the rubble-strewn battlefield. Cameron remained standing, gazing out a window, being the vigilant sentinel she always was.
Connor watched her, recalling how he had once stood vigil over Allison Young. How he had promised her during those cold, bleak nights that he would keep her safe. How she had trusted him the same way a child would trust a father. The memories of the times he'd spent with his surrogate daughter brought him a fleeting moment of joy. It quickly evaporated, replaced by the gnawing guilt of his failure to save her. Of a promise that had been broken.
He let out a small sigh and turned his thoughts away from the memories. There were other matters he needed to consider. Ones more important - and less painful.
Present Day - Los Angeles
Thursday, May 21, 2009
The gears in John Connor's mind ground themselves unceasingly. He was still reeling with what he'd just been told about how Cameron had kidnapped and tortured Derek, and how his future self had attempted to cover the incident up. How the Resistance had been in danger of falling apart. Why Jesse had been so desperate to travel back to this period in time, and why she had been so bent on poisoning his trust in Cameron.
And now, according to Kara Thrace, there was yet more to this story.
He looked at the others. Jesse was sitting back in her chair, hands and feet crossed, staring up at the ceiling. He got the sense she didn't think whatever Starbuck had to say was worth listening to. Sarah, on the other hand, looked quite intrigued. Marcus, naturally, stood and watched with no expression at all. Charley Dixon was just hanging back by the window, keeping watch. He seemed to have given up trying to understand just what the heck they were all talking about.
John finally addressed Kara. "Well?" he said. "Go on."
"Look, kid," said Kara earnestly, "I'm sorry that I never mentioned any of this before, but I didn't think you'd-"
John shook his head. "Don't be sorry. Given everything else I've learned about you, I kinda figured you'd have a couple more secrets. Honestly, at this point, I don't think you can surprise me anymore." He motioned for her to continue. "Let's hear it."
Kara nodded. "Okay... First of all, let's get one thing straight: Before that video was leaked, I didn't know anything about Derek being tortured or Cameron's involvement. I just knew the official story - that Derek, Wisher and Sayles had been captured by machines and taken to an abandoned house. After three days in captivity, they, along with another prisoner, Timms, managed to escape. That was all I ever knew."
"So Derek never told you the truth?" said John. "He never mentioned Cameron? Or what she supposedly did to him?"
"He never talked much about it at all. And I never really pressed him about the issue. I guess you could say I was already feeling guilty about having to keep the truth about what happened to Kyle from him... Besides, I never got that many chances to talk to him at all. Shortly after they got back, he, Sayles and Timms were suddenly transferred to permanent posts at Serrano Point."
John raised his eyebrows. "Let me guess. On my orders, right?"
"More or less. And then, several months after that..." She shrugged. "Well, you know what happened next. They were all sent back in time. A 'classified long-term assignment' as it was called."
"Isolating them from the rest of the Resistance," Jesse interjected. "Just another part of the cover-up."
Kara shot an annoyed look at Jesse but continued her story. "Wisher was the only one left who I could talk to. But he always claimed he couldn't remember anything that happened to him in that house. So I ended up learning about Cameron's involvement the same way everyone else did."
"What did Future Me say?" John asked. "Once the secret was out?" He had a feeling he wasn't going to like the answer.
"Future You?" Kara raised an eyebrow. "Nothing. He and Cam had already left the Seattle Sector a couple days earlier. He left me and a small contingent of troops at Hyena Bunker to keep an eye out on things. When the shit hit the fan, there was complete radio silence. Not a frakkin' word from the top."
John felt his stomach churn. So far, everything Starbuck had said only seemed to confirm Jesse's accusations of a cover up.
"So what happened next?" he asked.
"In short, everything went to hell."
"Well, at least we can all agree on that," Jesse quipped, sounding quite self-assured, perhaps even smug.
Kara scowled. "Must you be such a self-righteous bitc-?"
"Anyway..." John interrupted. "How do you fit into all of this, Kara?"
She looked at him. "Me?"
"Yeah. What were you doing? Looking for the truth?"
"The truth?" She shook her head and gave a grim chuckle. "Kid, those first couple of weeks after Connor disappeared, I wasn't in much of a position to give a rat's ass about any sort of truth. I was too busy trying to keep everything at home from falling apart. Not an easy task, by the way..."
October 19, 2027 - Seattle Sector
Tech Com Outpost Hyena Bunker
An irate Kara Thrace slammed her fist down on her desk. The force of the blow sent a stack of reports tumbling to the floor. "Frakkin' unbelievable," she growled. It was all she could do to stop herself from tearing down the walls of this cramped, badly-lit, windowless, stuffy room currently serving as both her office and sleeping quarters.
The trouble had started this morning with an argument between a couple of soldiers and a reprogrammed Triple-Eight. One of the soldiers, Corporal Gavin, eventually lost his temper and shoved the machine. The machine had shoved him back - sending him halfway across the room. The other soldier, Specialist Lancer, either in fear or anger, drew her sidearm and opened fire on the Terminator. Unfortunately, one of her shots missed and hit Private Wickham (who'd been minding his business all this time) in the chest. The Terminator somehow arrived at the conclusion that Lancer was trying to kill Wickham, and reacted by grabbing Lancer by the throat and throttling her.
Fortunately, a captain had overheard the commotion and arrived just in time to order the machine to release Lancer. Also fortunate, Wickham had been wearing body armor at the time, and the bullet had not penetrated. Ultimately, the situation had been contained, the machine had voluntarily surrendered its chip for analysis, and the three soldiers had suffered only minor injuries.
Nevertheless, Kara was pissed as hell. She didn't need this crap right now. She had enough on her plate already.
After taking several deep breaths, she calmed down enough to look up at Vincent Harris who was doing an admiral job keeping composed in the face of his commander's fury. Harris, recently promoted to Lieutenant, had been serving as Kara's personal adjutant these past few weeks. His tasks primarily consisted of delivering reports and briefing her on day-to-day matters - and, not infrequently, giving her the bad news.
Feeling a little embarrassed by her outburst, Kara slowly sat back down in her chair behind her desk. "Sorry you had to see that," she muttered.
Harris raised an eyebrow. "Didn't see nothing, ma'am."
"Right..." With a sigh, Kara wearily gestured for him to continue his report. "Let's hear the rest of it."
Harris cleared his throat and looked down at his PDA. "The techs are ready to bring the machine back online."
She nodded. "Give them the green light to proceed. But make sure there's an armed guard with them. Just in case anything goes wrong."
"Gotcha." He scrolled down the PDA. "Doctor Ridge says he's ready to discharge Lancer and Gavin. But he wants to keep Wickham in the infirmary for another twenty-four hours."
Again, she nodded. "Fine with me. Just have someone fill in for Wickham for tonight's perimeter watch."
"Already done, ma'am. Corporal Manteca volunteered."
"Good for him. Anything else?"
Harris shook his head. "That's pretty much it."
"Good." Kara leaned forward across the desk. "In that case, Lieutenant, please go to the infirmary and tell Lancer and Gavin to haul their asses in here - now."
Harris flinched. "Yes, ma'am." He straightened his shoulders, saluted, and left the office.
Now alone, Kara leaned back in her chair and let out a groan of despair.
Where the frak are you, Connor?
Almost two weeks had passed since she and the little band of Tech Com fighters here at Hyena Bunker had finished hunting down the leftover Skynet elements in the surroundings districts. They were supposed to have received new orders from General Connor by now. Instead, they had gotten a scandalous leak with damning footage of Cameron committing horrific crimes against Tech Com soldiers.
And, of course, absolutely nothing from Connor.
Since then, they'd been plagued with low morale, inactivity, and rumor-mongering while they waited for orders. Tensions were running high, and everyone was on a razor's edge. When people weren't talking crap about Cameron or grumbling about having to work with machines, they were speculating about what Connor was up to and whether or not he was coming back. Many were convinced that he was in hiding, waiting for things to settle down. Others believed he'd completely abandoned the Resistance and had retired somewhere. 'Probably shacked up with his metal bitch, too,' was something Kara had heard more than once when people thought she wasn't listening.
There were other, even more bizarre, off-the-wall rumors floating around, such as Connor being infected by some sort of Skynet nano-virus and converted into an unstoppable Terminator-human hybrid that was coming to kill them all. Crazy talk, obviously. These days, however, crazy seemed to be the new normal.
Initially, Kara had ignored all the trash talk and gossip, choosing instead to focus on running the base. Malicious whisperings and badmouthing were nothing new. No need to waste time, energy, or sanity cracking down on this. She just needed to hang in there until Connor returned, and then everything would be fine. At least that's what she'd been telling herself.
This latest event, however, had forced her hand. Now she had to do something.
For a long, drawn out period of time, she stared down at her desk, pondering how to handle this situation. What was she supposed to do with these two idiots? Confining them to the barracks for a few days seemed like the most obvious and most logical solution. Deep down though, she knew that that wouldn't solve the long term problem. This atmosphere of anger and fear that had been festering within Hyena these past couple of weeks could destroy everything and everyone here as completely as any Skynet attack. She needed to stamp out this cancer now before it spread to the rest of her troops.
As she debated her options, she recalled the days following the escape from New Caprica. That time had been one of the lowest points in her life. She'd selfishly turned her anger, guilt and bitterness against her fellow comrades, not caring for the damage she caused. It had taken something dramatic to pull her out of that.
Well, she decided, it worked on me. Maybe it'll work here...
Absentmindedly, she switched on the portable radio on her desk - and immediately regretted doing so.
"-I say this now to all of you: The time of mere resistance and survival is over. Now is the time of reclamation and retribution. I, General Hugh Ashdown, call upon patriots everywhere to rise up! Rise up and join me in our crusade to retake our homeland! No more of this United States In-Exile nonsense. There is only the United States of America! Nothing can stop us! Our nation will be whole once more! We will once again be leaders of the Free World-"
Scowling, Kara abruptly switched the radio off.
Can't that smug bastard come up with something original? Gods, I wish I could just shove all that crap he spews back up his...
A knock on the door interrupted her brooding. She looked up. "Enter."
The door opened. Corporal Paul Gavin entered, followed closely by Specialist Tabitha Lancer. Both soldiers appeared highly embarrassed and more than a little apprehensive.
Kara sighed inwardly. She'd fought side by side with these two. She knew them both to be tenacious, dedicated and loyal. The type of soldiers who she could always count on. To see them standing here like this was... disappointing to say the least.
"Reporting as ordered, ma'am," said Gavin.
"Shut the door," Kara ordered coldly.
Gavin obeyed and closed the door. He and Lancer then stood at attention in front of Kara, waiting for her to speak. For almost ten long seconds, Kara said nothing as she regarded the two with an expression of utmost disdain.
"Amazing," she said, shaking her head. "I've had my share of idiots in my life. But this... This is a whole new level of stupidity."
"Colonel," Gavin started to say, "this is all a big misunderstanding. I can explain-"
Kara cut him off. "I don't want an explanation. I just want one thing..."
She stood up and pulled out her sidearm from its hip holster. Gavin's eyes widened in alarm. Lancer took a step back. "Whoa, whoa, whoa... What are you doing, Starbuck?" she asked nervously.
"Don't worry. I'm not gonna shoot you," said Kara. "As tempting as that might be..."
The two soldiers breathed a sigh of relief. They remained silent as Kara calmly unloaded all but one of the rounds from the magazine. She then tossed the weapon onto the table, where it landed with a dull thunk!
Gavin instinctively jumped back. "Jesus Christ, Starbuck! Watch it! That thing's got a live one in it!"
Kara ignored his protest. She folded her arms across her chest and stared at the two soldiers with a harsh look. "Alright, here's the deal," she said, in a cold, commanding voice. "One of you - I don't care who - pick up that gun... and shoot me."
Gavin stared at her. "Excuse me?"
"I said pick up that gun and shoot me," Kara replied, in the same cold voice.
Dumbfounded, Gavin's jaw dropped in an almost comical fashion.
Tabitha cracked a nervous grin. "Ha ha... Yeah, that's real funny, Starbuck."
Kara glowered at her. "You think this is a joke, Specialist? I said pick up that gun and shoot me."
Lancer's smile evaporated. She glanced at Gavin worriedly.
Gavin cleared his throat. "Ummm... ma'am, are you feeling all right?"
Kara suddenly slammed her fist down on the table, causing them to jump back again. "Are your ears working, soldier? I didn't say talk, I said shoot. One more time: Pick up the fucking gun-" she deliberately used the Earth curse to make it clear just how serious she was "-and shoot me."
Gavin and Lancer exchanged looks. Kara watched them carefully. They were clearly confused; perhaps even frightened.
Good, she thought.
She pressed her attack. "What's the matter? Ain't got a pair? All talk and no bite? Don't have the guts to go all the way?" When neither soldier answered, she sneered, "Pathetic... Nothing but a couple of cowards."
Tabbi's expression went from bewildered to outraged in a flash. "Cowards?" she said furiously. "What the hell, Starbuck? After all we've been through?"
"Right now," Kara hissed, "all we've been through means nothing."
"Why? Because we're not batshit crazy enough to actually shoot you?"
"You didn't seem to have any trouble shooting at friendlies this morning."
Lancer rolled her eyes. "Oh riiiight... 'cause the metals are such good friends."
"Friends or not, they're on our side," Kara admonished. "And last time I checked, we don't shoot anyone on our side - man or machine."
"Hey, someone's gotta remind those metals who's in charge," Gavin interjected.
Kara whirled on him. "Excuse me? In case you've forgotten, I'm the one in charge here."
Gavin started to protest, "That's not what I meant-"
"And if you two clowns think you can do a better job than me, then pick up that weapon and shoot me. Otherwise, change your attitudes. They stink!"
"Stink, huh?" Lancer said sarcastically. "Why? Because we're not acting like things are okay? Oh yeah, 'cause everything is just perfect, right now. I mean, it's not like Connor has vanished into thin air, right? Not like we've been here for weeks without hearing a word from him. Not like our people were screwed over by his favorite metal bitch-"
"The only ones who are screwing us over are idiots like you! Idiots who are gonna get everyone in this bunker killed!" Kara shot back. "Wickham almost died today because of you!"
Her words wiped the defiance clean off of Lancer's face. "That-that was an accident..."
"Don't give me that bullshit, Tabbi," Kara growled. "You didn't fire your gun by accident. That was deliberate. You just happened to be a lousy shot." Her voice dropped to an almost guttural tone. "You didn't just put yourselves in danger today. You put a fellow soldier in danger. That cannot happen. Not here. Not on my watch."
Lancer stared down at the floor, clearly ashamed. Gavin grimaced and shuffled his feet uncomfortably.
"I once thought of you as people I could trust," Kara said. "People who would never stop fighting. People who would never jeopardize the lives of those around them. Now all I see are a couple of bitter, broken, burnt out losers who don't give a damn about anyone or anything."
She paused, letting her words sink in. Gavin's pained expression intensified. Lancer seemed on the verge of tears.
"Is this who you are?" Kara asked. "After all that's happened, after all you've done... Is this who you are?"
She folded her arms across her chest, waiting for a reply.
Gavin spoke first. "No, ma'am..." he murmured quietly.
Kara turned to Lancer. "You, Specialist?"
Lancer shook her head. "No, ma'am."
"Well, thank God for that," Kara said, throwing up her arms in mock jubilation.
She exhaled, allowing herself to relax a tad. "I know you're on edge with everything that's happened lately," she said. Her voice was considerably gentler now. "We're all on edge. But that's makes it all the more important that we stick together and act like the soldiers we're supposed to be."
Her expression hardened. "And if you or anyone else for that matter can't do that, then you can either kill me, or you can pack your bags and get the hell out of this bunker. I will not watch my people tear themselves apart. Not after all we've been through. Is that understood?"
"We can do our jobs, ma'am," said Gavin. "Right, Tabbi?"
"This'll never happen again," Lancer added adamantly. "We promise."
Kara nodded. "For everyone's sake, I sure as hell hope so. Now, both of you, get out of my sight."
"Yes, ma'am," they replied simultaneously. They straightened their shoulders, saluted, and made a hasty exit.
Exhausted but relatively satisfied that she had conveyed her message appropriately, Kara collapsed in her chair, tossed her head back, and exhaled with relief.
Thanks, Old Man. I owe you that one.
John shook his head. "I take it back. You can still surprise me, Starbuck."
Kara grinned. "To be fair, it wasn't exactly my idea. It's something I learned, ahem-" she cleared throat "-a very long time ago. If you know what I mean."
John smiled. "Yeah, I know what you mean..."
Jesse, on the other hand, appeared far less than impressed. "Well, I guess it's nice that you could take Cameron's crimes in stride and act like it was business as usual," she remarked sardonically. "Never mind the fact that it was your own people who were abducted, humiliated, and abused by her."
Kara's grin turned into an indignant look. "You think I didn't care?" she said fiercely. "You weren't the only one who loved Derek. He was my friend. Those were my people who suffered. Of course, I cared. But at the same time, I still had a job to do, and I was committed to getting it done. Unlike some other people, I didn't just bail out 'cause things got a little rough."
"No, of course you didn't..." said Jesse, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "You're too good for that."
"Ahem..." John held up his hands before another pointless argument could ensue. "Let's get back on track, okay? What happened next, Starbuck?"
Kara grimaced. "Well... another week went by. Still no word from Connor. And things only got worse..."
October 28, 2027
Order for combat deactivation as follows:
First Sergeant William Wisher of Tech Com's Special Operations has recently been diagnosed with chronic radiation sickness. The severity and nature of his condition has made him a potential liability to any future combat operations. Therefore, with the approval from and on the advice of Hyena Bunker's primary medical officer, it is ordered that First Sergeant Wisher be relieved of all combat duties immediately and indefinitely.
Signed by Tech Com Special Operations Commander
Colonel Kara Thrace.
Having finished reading the memo out loud, Kara Thrace put the PDA down on a nearby drawer. Mentally, she exhaled. At least that part was over.
Her gaze reluctantly turned to Sergeant Billy Wisher, laying in his bed, garbed in just a paper thin hospital gown. She shuddered at the sight of her friend. He looked frail and tired, like something was eating away at him from the inside. Electrodes stuck to his bare arms sent out a constant flow of data to nearby monitors. They continuously bleeped in an almost mocking tone. IV lines, also stuck in his arms, pumped fluids in and out of his emaciated body. For more than a week now, he'd been marooned in here, stricken with a serious fever and showing no sign of improvement. Consequently, she'd had no choice but to permanently strike him from the duty roster.
While she could've sent Lieutenant Harris or anyone else to deliver the bad news, she'd taken it upon herself to perform this unhappy task. It was the least she owed Wisher.
Kara gave him an apologetic look. "I didn't want to do this, but I can't let you go back into the fighting. You understand that, right?"
Wisher's only response was to sit up and shrug his shoulders. "Guess I should've seen this coming..." he muttered, his voice devoid of emotion.
This exaggerated display of apathy didn't fool Kara for a moment.
"You don't have to pretend you don't care, Billy," she said. "I know this has gotta hurt."
Wisher hung his head. "Yeah... yeah, it does."
Nearly a full minute of uncomfortable silence passed before he finally looked back up.
"Just let me stay at Hyena, Starbuck." His tone had suddenly turned desperate, as though the reality of his situation had finally struck home. "I don't want to leave you. I-I can still be useful. I know I can."
The pleading look in his eyes tore at Kara. She hesitated to respond. "I... I haven't made any decision about any of that yet."
"Please, Starbuck... Don't make me go. You need me here-"
She held up a hand. "Right now, the only thing I need you to do is to hang tight and stay alive. Can you do that for me?"
Again, Wisher looked down. Another thirty seconds of silence elapsed before he looked up again.
"Yes, ma'am," he said. His voice had become monotonic once more, but now Kara could see conviction in his eyes.
She nodded in approval. "Good man, soldier. Stay strong."
"Yes, ma'am..." He lay back in his bed. "You don't believe what they're saying about Cameron, do you?"
The sudden change in conversation caught Kara completely off guard. "Excuse me?"
"What people are saying about her. That she's a traitor. That she's been with Skynet this whole time." He gave her a pleading look - almost as earnest as the one he'd given to her just moments earlier. "You know that's not true, right?"
Kara felt an unpleasant lurch in her stomach. This was the last thing she wanted to talk about with Wisher. After all, she was the one who'd sent him, Derek, and the others on that disastrous mission. Though she knew she bore no blame for their ordeal, she had never been able to fully absolve herself of responsibility. She was just grateful that Kyle had not been here to witness his brother in such suffering and humiliation.
"Honestly," she said, looking away, "I-I don't really know what to think about any of this. It's all so... frakked up."
"It's not her fault, what happened to me and the others in that basement," Billy whispered hoarsely. He started to sit up again. "It wasn't her down there! I know it wasn't. It couldn't have been... She would never have-"
"Hey, hey, hey..." Kara placed a hand on his chest and gently pushed him back down onto the bed. "Don't worry about Cameron. She can take care of herself. I'm sure this mess'll be sorted out sooner or later."
I hope it will be...
Truth be told, she'd been deliberately avoiding even thinking about this scandal these past few weeks. Not only had she not wanted to distract herself from her duties, but she simply couldn't come to grips with the damning allegations being made against Cameron - the one being in existence she had ever considered her equal. She and her machine comrade had fought side-by-side for over three years. Despite their differences, they'd come to respect one another. Cameron had always guarded her back on the battlefield, pulling her out of one sticky situation after another. Kara, in turn, had always been quick to defend Cameron from any malicious rumors and grumblings within the ranks, occasionally kicking an ass or two when needed.
These latest accusations, however, backed up by what seemed to be irrefutable video evidence, now called everything into question. Had her trust in Cameron been horribly misplaced? Had her cyborg partner been playing her for a fool all along? Could she have been wrong this entire time?
She wasn't sure she wanted to know.
"So, anyway, how have things been here lately?" Kara asked, taking the opportunity to change subjects.
"Not bad," said Wisher. "It's actually pretty nice in here. Calm and quiet. Food's definitely better. Gets a bit lonely sometimes, you know, being the only long-term case in here."
He gestured around at the couple dozen or so other hospital beds, all of which were currently empty.
"People just come and go," he remarked. "No one ever stays more than a day."
Kara nodded. "Ever since we took out that plasma battery last month, there hasn't been much in the way of action in this sector."
"I guess Skynet really is starting to pull out then."
"Maybe. Though, to be honest, I think we could use a Skynet attack right now. Anything to keep people busy. That, and I wouldn't have to deal with stupid things-"
Her radio earpiece buzzed, signaling she had an incoming call.
She rolled her eyes. "...like this."
Giving Wisher an apologetic look, she turned away and tapped her radio. "This is Thrace. Go ahead."
"Harris here, Colonel. You have a visitor."
"General Sloan, ma'am. He's waiting for you in your office."
Kara's blood froze. Oh crap...
"Sloan? W-What does he want?" she asked, keeping her voice low.
"Don't know, ma'am. But he's insisting on seeing you ASAP."
Kara gave an exasperated groan. "All right, all right. Tell him I'm on my way."
"Copy that, ma'am."
The radio clicked silent.
Shaking her head, she turned back to Wisher. "Sorry, Billy. I've gotta go. There's a... special visitor waiting for me."
Wisher nodded. "It's all right. I'm just happy you were here for me."
"You're one of my people, Wisher. I've gotta be there for you." She gave him a parting smile. "Hang in there, soldier. That's an order."
Kara was no longer smiling when she got back to her office barely ten minutes later. In fact, she was barely managing to keep a neutral expression. What the hell was Sloan doing here? What did he want?
She paused outside the door, closed her eyes, and inhaled, purging herself of any unnecessary emotion and worries. At the same time, she put her mind on full alert. She didn't want to be distracted, nor did she want to be blindsided. Least of all when dealing with someone she didn't want to deal with in the first place.
She re-opened her eyes and exhaled. Now as ready as she ever would be, she opened the door and stepped inside her office.
As expected, she found General Benedict Sloan waiting for her inside. He has his back turned to her, his hands clasped firmly behind him. He gave no sign of acknowledgment as she shut the door behind her. A textbook display of self-importance that so many superior assholes seemed to enjoy.
She cleared her throat. "General Sloan?"
Sloan turned around. His eyes lit up, as if surprised by her presence.
"Ah, Colonel Thrace," he greeted pleasantly. "It's good to see you again. Thank you for seeing me. I hope you'll forgive me for dropping by so suddenly like this."
Kara mentally cringed at this nauseating display of patronization. "No need to apologize, General," she replied, somehow managing not to show her disgust. "It's always good to have something... unexpected happen every now and then. Keeps us on our toes."
"Indeed..." Sloan gestured at an empty chair in front of her desk. "May I take a seat?"
"Thank you." Sloan sat down. "This all seems quite familiar, doesn't it?" he remarked, looking around the office.
"Oh? How so?" asked Kara as she walked over to her desk.
"The first time we met, at Bunker Five, you were its acting commander. Now, you're the acting commander here... Of a much higher caliber, of course."
Kara kept her expression guarded. "I wouldn't know," she said coolly. "I don't think much about that particular day."
Sloan's expression remained unchanged. However, there was a slight twitch in his neck, betraying a tad of indignity. Resisting the urge to smirk, Kara took a seat behind her desk so that she was sitting across the table from Sloan, looking at him face-to-face.
She cleared her throat. "So... What can I do for you, General?"
"Officially," said Sloan, "I'm here to examine the possibility of utilizing this base's medical facilities as an auxiliary hospital unit."
Kara frowned. "Why here? This is a small outpost. Our infirmary isn't designed to take in mass casualties."
"I'm aware of that. Nevertheless, I'd like to judge its capabilities. As such, I will be needing a complete inventory of your medical equipment, as well as all relevant records regarding recent staff and patients."
Now more irritated than confused, Kara dropped her efforts to keep her emotions in check. "You're the head of this sector's Local Forces. You could've sent anyone for a bit of paperwork," she pointed out. "What are you really doing here?"
If Sloan was surprised or angered by her bluntness, he didn't show it. In fact, he actually smiled. "You're absolutely right, Colonel. I have another reason for being here." He clasped his hands together and leaned forward. "I'm here to deliver an invitation to you, in person."
Kara's annoyance turned back to bewilderment. "An invitation to what?"
"To the greatest battle in the history of Humanity." Sloan's eyes gleamed. "General Ashdown is preparing to unleash an all out assault on Cheyenne Mountain."
"What?" Kara stared at him with a slack-jawed expression. "W-We're gonna attack Skynet itself?"
Sloan smiled and nodded. "That's right. We're cutting off the head of the serpent."
"I-I thought Portland and Spokane were our next targets."
"That was the original plan, yes. But our strategists have determined that with the enemy stretched to its limits, now is the time to strike. To pierce the enemy through the heart before it can regroup. It's a risky plan, I'll grant you that. We're bound to take heavy losses. But Ashdown believes it will save time, resources, and lives in the long run."
"Will it?" Kara gave him a skeptical look. "Cheyenne Mountain won't exactly be a walk in the park."
"No, it won't," said Sloan. "Which is exactly why we need people like you to help lead the attack."
Her eyes widened. "Me?"
"We could certainly benefit from your... creativeness."
Kara found herself at a total loss for words. This was not what she had been expecting. She didn't want to admit it out loud, but at least part of her was genuinely excited. The prospect of storming Cheyenne Mountain and destroying Skynet in its lair was tempting to say the least. However, at the same time, she knew she shouldn't trust anything Sloan had to say. Whatever he was offering her, he had to have some sort of angle - one designed to benefit him and only him.
At last, she found her voice. "Who exactly is backing Ashdown on this?" she asked suspiciously.
"Ashdown already has the full support of the US-In-Exile Council and the President," said Sloan. "They know the stakes here. We all do."
"Uh huh... And what about the Resistance and Tech Com? How many besides you are coming to the party?"
Sloan smiled, like a wolf savoring a fresh piece of meat. "That's where we're hoping you'll help out - in addition to your combat skills, of course. I believe the presence of one of General Connor's favorite lieutenants will garner additional support from others in the Resistance."
Kara rolled her eyes. "Oh... so that's my real job, huh? Being the poster girl for Ashdown's campaign."
Sloan's smile grew. "Don't be embarrassed, Colonel. You're an inspiration. Not just to the ones you lead into battle, but others who have had the pleasure of knowing you. People like Koontz and Perry..."
"What about Connor? What does he have to say about this plan?"
"Connor?" Sloan's eyebrows furrowed, as if he'd never heard the name before. "No one's heard from him in weeks or even knows where he is. So, needless to say, he's had nothing to say about this."
"Uh huh... Well, in that case, thanks for the invitation, but no thank you."
Sloan frowned, his confusion genuine this time. "I don't understand. We're talking about ending this war once and for all. Destroying Skynet and saving the human race. Isn't that what you want?"
"Of course, I do," Kara replied tersely. "But you'll forgive me if I'm a little reluctant to charge into the most heavily fortified enemy stronghold on the planet."
"Really, Colonel?" Sloan chuckled lightly. "Since when have you ever been afraid to go into battle, regardless of the odds?"
"This isn't about me," Kara retorted. "This is about the people here. The ones who are counting on me. Trusting me with their lives."
"And I'm sure they must be hungry for action after all this time," said Sloan, smiling again. "I doubt any of them would pass up the opportunity to attack Skynet itself."
"Yeah, you're probably right about that. But I promised Connor that I would keep everyone here safe until he returned. I won't go back on my word."
Sloan's expression turned grave. "Have you considered the possibility that you won't be hearing from Connor any time soon? Perhaps not ever? After all, this recent scandal involving that machine friend of yours has done quite a bit of damage to his public image. Many have already denounced him."
He leaned back and let out an overdramatic sigh, as if to convey a deep sense of regret.
"As much as it pains me to say this, I think we have to accept the fact that John Connor may never return."
Kara shook her head. "I don't believe you."
"You don't want to believe it. No one does. But the fact is that Connor has disappeared. You can't deny that."
"Connor is a lot of things," Kara hissed, "but a coward is not one of them. I don't know where he is, or what he's up to, but I know he hasn't abandoned anyone. You see, unlike certain other people, Connor actually cares about the people who follow him."
"Does he?" A thinly-veiled smirk slipped onto Sloan's face. "So when Connor chose to conceal the events of last January from everyone, he was caring about his followers? Not desperately trying to protect his favorite machine? What about the men who were captured and held in that wretched basement? You knew them, didn't you? They suffered terribly. Nearly died. And how does Connor repay their loyalty? With exile."
"That's not true!" Kara blurted out. "They're on a classified long-term mission."
Sloan raised an eyebrow. "How very convenient..." He leaned forward across the desk once again. "What I'm trying to say is that John Connor is not the Warrior-Messiah he's been idolized as. He's a great man, yes. A very clever, very charismatic man. Someone who knows what his followers want to hear and knows how to control them - even when he's not around." He paused. "But he also knows when to stay... and when to leave. I'm not calling him a coward, Thrace. Far from it. However, any man in his situation would want to disappear."
For a moment, Sloan's words threatened to pierce Kara's defenses. Fear gripped her heart as a terrible thought entered her head. What if he's right?
NO, she thought a moment later. Stay strong, Starbuck. Don't let this asshole get in your head.
"No," she stated flatly. "He wouldn't just leave. Not when there's still a war going on."
Sloan leaned back in his chair once again. "True," he acknowledged. "The fighting isn't over. And perhaps Connor will resurface... eventually. But the fact remains that he is not here right now. He cannot lead you - or protect you."
"Oh, but you can?"
"You need men like me to survive, Thrace. That's the truth. Plain and simple."
"The only truth I see is that I'm wasting my time listening to this bullshit."
Sloan's expression hardened. "Then perhaps you should listen to this: Once Skynet is defeated, a new war will begin."
Kara rolled her eyes. "Oh gods, not this crap again..."
"I warned you about this years ago, Thrace," said Sloan, as if addressing a child. "Sides are already being drawn. Old alliances are being broken. And right now, General Ashdown is looking carefully at those who are standing with him... and those who are standing against him."
"I'm sorry, General, but is that a threat?" Kara sneered.
"It's a fact, Colonel," Sloan countered. "Things are changing. The sooner you accept this, the better off you'll be. I've never been an angel, Thrace. Nor do I plan on being one. But I am trying to be an ally. As... distasteful as you may find men like me and Ashdown, you'll need to learn to work with us if you want to have a future in this world. Ashdown is an ambitious man. But he's a reasonable man too. One who can be trusted with the future of human civilization." He gazed at her expectantly. "John Connor is in the past, Colonel. It's time to leave the past behind... and step forward into the future."
Determined not to show weakness, Kara stood up, leaned across the table, and locked eyes with Sloan. "If the future is going to belong to a bunch of conniving, self-centered assholes like you and Ashdown, I want no part of it," she said, infusing her voice with as much defiance as she could muster. "You can tell that son of a bitch Ashdown that I will see him in Hell first before I turn my back on Connor. You can also tell him that if he doesn't like my attitude, then he can come down here and do something about it himself."
For a few tense seconds, Sloan stared ahead, his expression blank, as if Kara's scathing reply had paralyzed him. When he finally spoke, he was calm and collected, yet his disdain was evident. "Your short-sightedness will cost you, Thrace. Mark my words."
"Maybe. But if I have to pay a price, at least I won't have to pay you." She folded her arms across her chest. "Now then, are we finished here?"
"It would seem that way..."
"Then it's time for you to leave."
"I still require access to the necessary records regarding the infirmary-"
"Right, right, right..." Kara turned around. "Harris!"
The door opened and Harris poked his head inside. "Yes, ma'am?" he asked nervously.
Kara cleared her throat as she calmly addressed him. "Lieutenant, would you please help General Sloan find the documents he needs? Afterwards, see to it that he leaves here safely. We wouldn't want anything bad to happen to him, would we?"
Harris nodded. "Yes, ma'am. Right away."
Kara turned back to Sloan. "Thank you for stopping by, General. It was quite a... pleasure."
"Indeed..." He stood up and straightened out his coat. "My offer still stands, Thrace. I hope you'll reconsider your decision."
She snorted. "Yeah, well, we don't always get what we hope for. Life's funny that way, isn't it?"
"Yes... yes, it is." He nodded to her. "Colonel Thrace."
Without waiting for her to acknowledge him back, Sloan swiftly turned away and strode out of the office.
Kara threw a mock salute at his retreating back.
Don't let the door hit you on the way out.
"I ain't gonna lie," said Kara, grinning a bit. "I felt pretty damn good kicking that asshole out. Best feeling I had in weeks."
Jesse tapped her foot impatiently. "As... interesting as all of this is, it doesn't explain anything."
Kara's smile turned to a look of annoyance. "I'm getting to that."
"When? Are we going to be here all day? Wasn't there some hopeless suicide mission on the agenda?"
"Let her finish," John said sternly. "We all listened to your side of the story. You've gotta do the same for her."
"Fair enough, I guess..." Jesse rubbed her eyes and sighed. "Go on, Thrace."
Kara cleared her throat. "Well, just three days after all that happened, I got another unwanted visit..."
October 31, 2027
Knock, knock, knock.
Knock, knock, knock.
Kara Thrace groaned as she forced herself from her bed. What time was it? No – forget that. How long had it been since she'd retired to her bunk? She checked her clock and figured she'd gotten maybe four hours of sleep.
Knock, knock, knock.
She groaned again. "All right, Harris! Hold on..." Still dressed in just a tank top and panties, Kara stalked over to the door and opened it.
"What is it?" she demanded.
Lieutenant Harris, taken aback by the sight of his groggy, sour-faced, half-naked commander, took a few moments to recompose himself. "Eh, s-sorry to wake you up," he stammered, his eyes looking downward at her well-shaped, bare thighs, "but, uh, Ferret Squad just came back from patrol."
Kara scowled impatiently. "Yeah? And?"
"Well... uh... They picked someone up along the way. And-"
"Harris! Eyes up here!"
"Oh!" Harris' head shot back up. "Sorry, ma'am," he murmured, his face flushed red. "I wasn't-"
"What about Ferret Squad?"
"They, uh, brought someone back... DEIMOS."
Kara's irritation turned to apprehension. "DEIMOS?"
"Yeah. You know: Division of Essential Intel and Major Ops Support. The spook gang. The folks who-"
"I know what DEIMOS is," Kara interrupted. "What's one of them doing here?"
Harris shrugged. "No idea, ma'am. She wouldn't say much, except that she needed to see you ASAP."
Alarm bells began ringing inside Kara's head. "She?"
"I'm pretty sure it's that woman who was with us at Topanga. You remember her, right?"
Kara's stomach grew cold. Oh frak...
"Yeah, I remember," she said, trying to stay calm. "Where is she now?"
"Still outside with Ferret Squad. They wanna know what to do with her."
Kara took a few seconds to contemplate exactly how to handle this latest situation. "All right... Have her surrender any weapons and communications devices. Then escort her here- Harris? Harris!"
Harris, whose gaze had started moving downward again, jerked his head back up. "Sorry, ma'am. Didn't mean to-"
"Did you hear what I said?"
"No weapons. No comms. Escort her here. Got it."
"Good. Now get going, Mister."
"Yes, ma'am." Harris gave a hasty salute and took off.
Kara shut the door and wearily leaned back against it. Still sleepy, she rubbed her eyes and groaned out loud. First Sloan. Now Brice. What the hell had she done to deserve all of this?
After throwing some clothes on and taking a swig of two-day old coffee, she went about tidying things up. Not that she particularly cared if her office was a mess when Brice got here, but she needed to do something to keep herself focused. Though her personal opinion of Brice had improved a little since Topanga Canyon, the presence of a DEIMOS operative could only mean trouble. More crap that she had to deal with...
All too soon, she heard a knock on the door.
"Ma'am, she's here."
Kara sighed. "Send her in, Harris. Then shut the door. No one enters until I say otherwise."
A second later, the door swung open and Agent Veronica Brice stepped inside. Kara's insides tensed, but she kept a straight face.
"Agent Brice..." she acknowledged, nodding to her.
The DEIMOS operative returned the gesture. "Colonel Thrace..." she greeted, her expression just as stoic.
Behind her the door slammed shut. Kara quickly took in Brice's appearance. She wore her usual black jumpsuit, gloves, and boots, and had her dark hair tied neatly in a bun. Nothing that might hint at her purpose for being here.
"Colonel, I apologize for this unexpected visit..." Brice started to say.
Kara held up a hand. "Don't apologize. Just tell me what you're doing here."
"Well... officially, I'm your guest who'll be staying here for a few days until I receive new orders."
Kara's expression turned instantly sour. "Brice, I'm already having a shitty week. I'm in no mood for games. Tell me what the hell you're doing here, now."
Brice raised her eyebrows. "All right then," she replied, as unflappable as ever. "I'm here under direct orders from General Connor."
Kara felt her heart skip a beat. "Connor? John Connor? He sent you here?"
Brice nodded. "Correct."
Kara's jaw dropped. "I-I haven't heard from him in weeks! Hell, no one's heard from him. Where is he? What the hell is he doing?"
"Staying out of public sight at the moment," Brice replied matter-of-factly.
Kara sputtered, "Out of- Out of sight? Does he have any frakkin' clue what the hell's been going on here? What I've had to deal with lately?"
"Of course. That's why he sent me here."
"To do what, exactly?"
"To get answers about the incident in the LA Sector last January. Specifically Cameron's alleged involvement in the abduction of four Tech Com soldiers last January - three of whom were from your very own Special Operations Division."
Kara rolled her eyes. "Oh, so NOW you're getting around to checking that out? As opposed to doing it months ago when it would have helped a lot more. Just how much did DEIMOS know about all of this before that damn video was released?"
Brice reacted to Kara's scathing commentary with typical coolness. "Only what the four men reported in their debriefings. Lieutenant Reese, Private Sayles, and Private Timms spoke of being interrogated by a machine matching Cameron's description. However, there was nothing to prove their allegations that it was actually Cameron. Not at that time, anyway. Besides, we had contradictory testimony from Sergeant Wisher saying that he never saw Cameron during his captivity."
Kara barely processed half of what Brice was saying. For the last several weeks, she'd been trying hard not to think about what had happened to Cameron or Derek or the others in that basement. Now the floodgates had shattered, releasing every pent-up emotion and thought in uncontrollable torrents.
"So, you just told them to keep their mouths shut, right?" she said, her voice trembling. "Pretended like none of this ever happened?"
"General Connor made that decision," Brice replied. "He didn't want to induce panic or further feed anti-machine sentiment in the Resistance by making these accusations public. Not without proof."
"Did you guys even bother looking for proof?" Kara demanded.
"Cameron's CPU was thoroughly analyzed. When nothing was found, Connor ordered the investigation closed..." Brice's eyes glanced down a bit. "Not necessarily the decision I would have made, but those were his orders."
"Wonderful..." Kara muttered sarcastically. "So now that there is proof, what happens next?"
"That depends..." The DEIMOS agent regarded Kara with a reserved expression. "Tell me, Colonel, do you think Cameron actually tortured those men on her own volition?"
Kara shook her head vigorously. "Hell no. Something must have happened to her down there. She must've been corrupted or-or something... No way she could have done this on her own."
Brice nodded approvingly. "Good. Connor believes as you do - that Cameron was compromised and forced to do what she did." She paused briefly, then asked, "I assume you don't know how Lieutenant Reese and the others managed to escape from that basement?"
Again, Kara shook her head. "No."
"They didn't escape. They were set free."
"According to all four men, after three days in captivity, they awoke to find the machines gone. What's more, someone had left them a hatchet which they used to break their chains and escape confinement. We didn't understand at first, but given everything that's happened lately, it's obvious that the machines allowed their prisoners to escape."
Kara frowned. "Why would Skynet let them go? Why not just kill them?"
A couple seconds of uncomfortable silence elapsed before Brice answered, "We have reason to believe that the Terminators that abducted your people were not in service of Skynet. We think the machines were in fact acting on the commands of other humans."
Kara gaped in utter disbelief. "Wait, wait, wait... Hold on. Are you saying that people were behind this?"
Brice nodded. "Yes. People."
"But-but... the only humans who can control Terminators are-"
"-are those in the Resistance. Exactly."
Kara's disbelief turned to sheer horror. "You're saying this was some kind of inside job?"
"I'm afraid so. Do you recall how you and Connor recovered a T-600's CPU off the body of DEIMOS Agent Kane last month?"
"As if I could forget... Connor and I were nearly killed looking for him in that damn sewer. But what does that have to do with this?"
"That wasn't just any T-600 CPU you and Connor found," Brice explained. "That was the CPU of the T-600 that assisted Cameron in interrogating the prisoners in that basement."
Kara blinked. "What?"
"The techs who analyzed that chip found memory fragments showing Cameron interrogating and torturing Lieutenant Reese. They're a perfect match to the video footage that's been leaked to the rest of the Resistance. But more importantly, the techs determined that the CPU belonged to a Terminator that had been previously captured and reprogrammed. One of our own."
"Holy shit..." It took Kara a good ten seconds to process what Brice had just said. "How-how'd your agent even get his hands on that thing in the first place?"
"We're not sure," Brice admitted. "Agent Kane was on a completely unrelated assignment in this sector when he obtained the chip. Whoever he stole it from obviously didn't want it falling into Connor's hands, so they tracked him down to the sewers and killed him. Fortunately, for whatever reason, the killer or killers failed to recover the CPU from his body, so it ultimately ended up in Connor's hands anyway."
"And yet that crap on it still somehow got leaked," Kara muttered dryly.
"Not exactly," replied Brice. "The leak originated from somewhere in the Seattle Sector shortly after Connor left. The people who killed Kane must have had a backup copy of the chip's data. Why they chose to leak it, we're not certain, but we do know they did it deliberately."
Her brain utterly overwhelmed, Kara collapsed in the chair behind her desk. She had a god-awful headache. She took a few deep breaths, trying to make sense of everything. Nearly thirty seconds passed before she had fully reacquired her train of thought.
"These people, the ones who killed Kane and leaked the video..." she said slowly. "You think they're the same assholes who kidnapped Reese and his men, and corrupted Cameron back in the LA Sector?"
Brice nodded. "That's what Connor thinks."
"And you think they staged this entire kidnap-torture scenario? Just so that they could get that shit on record and then later leak it anonymously to the entire Resistance?"
Brice nodded again. "The techs who analyzed the CPU found obvious signs of prior tampering. Someone cherry-picked specific memories to preserve in order to portray Cameron in the most damning light possible."
"Why? So they could turn everyone against her?"
"Maybe. We haven't determined a motive at this point. Nor do we have any real suspects. Anything on that CPU that might have helped identify the masterminds behind this scheme was erased. That's why Connor has gone silent. It's vital that this investigation be kept secret from the rest of the Resistance. We don't know how long this conspiracy has existed or how deep it goes. These people - whoever they are - are clearly good at covering their tracks. If they find out that Connor is onto them, they'll go underground and we'll never find them." Brice paused. "Which is why Connor sent me here."
"You need my help?" Kara gave her an incredulous look. "What am I supposed to do? You obviously know more about this than I do."
"Actually, it's not you I'm here for," said Brice. "It's Sergeant Wisher I need to see."
"Wisher? Billy Wisher?"
"I need to speak with him about the events in that basement."
Kara stared at her suspiciously. "Why? What could he possibly tell you now that he didn't already tell DEIMOS the first time? He never even saw Cameron in that basement."
"That is what he said in his initial debriefing, yes. However..." Brice trailed off, suddenly hesitant to continue.
"However, what?" asked Kara, her impatience returning.
"Colonel... I don't think you'd like what I have to say."
"Well, I know I don't like having my time wasted."
Brice pursed her lips. "When Cameron was first reprogrammed to serve the Resistance back in 2024, Connor had numerous fail safes and kill switches put in place in case the enemy ever recaptured her. Not even Skynet itself could have bypassed those defenses so easily. Whoever had Cameron reprogrammed must have had help from someone with intimate knowledge of her defenses. Someone who had a personal hand in reprogramming her-"
Almost without thought, Kara stood up. "All right, stop. Just stop right there. I know where you're going with this, and I'm telling you now: No. No frakking way."
"I thought you wouldn't like it," Brice quipped, a hint of smirk flashing across her face.
"You can't seriously think Wisher was the one who reprogrammed Cameron." Kara paused. "Actually, I take that back. Maybe you do. But I know for a fact that he would never betray us."
Brice gave her a challenging look. "Do you?"
"I do," said Kara adamantly. "And if you think I'm letting you put that man through the wringer - again, you're seriously mistaken. This isn't gonna be like Fort Leopard, Brice. This is my house, and here, no one gets to hurt my people. No one. Not even DEIMOS."
Brice's expression became even more defiant. "Colonel, I don't know what you think happened at Fort Leopard that day, but I didn't hurt anyone. Not Wisher or anyone else. In fact, the only one who actually got hurt was me, when you and I argued after Wisher's interview. I'm sure you remember that."
Kara glowered at her. "I remember you grilling him for six hours without stop. I remember him coming out of that interrogation room looking like shit. I remember the pain in his eyes. The terror in his voice."
"I remember that, too, Colonel. But I didn't hurt him. All I did was get him to admit the truth."
"Truth? What truth?"
Kara's fury boiled over. "Classified, my ass!" she spat. "If you want to go anywhere near Wisher, you'd better give me a damn good reason why I should trust you. Why I shouldn't believe you hurt him at Fort Leopard. Otherwise, you can get the frak out of my bunker. Now." She folded her arms across her chest. "Your move, Agent. Speak up or get out."
For what seemed like an eternity, Brice stared down at her feet, eyes narrowed. At last she looked back up and gave Kara a nod. "Two years ago," she stated, "when I was sent to Fort Leopard to evaluate your Spec Ops team - your Swamp Foxes, I was actually there to evaluate one man in particular - Billy Wisher. You see, DEIMOS had heard rumors that Wisher had had a hand in creating Skynet."
A dumbstruck Kara stared in helpless wonder at Brice. "You're kidding me, right?"
Brice replied with a stony expression. "I'm very serious. When Connor heard the rumors about Wisher, he sent me to Fort Leopard to investigate under the guise of evaluating your team. I confronted Wisher and asked him about it directly. It took a long time, but he eventually confessed to his role in Skynet's creation."
Kara shook her head in denial. "No... no, that can't be true. Not him. He couldn't have had anything to do with Skynet or Judgment Day. He couldn't."
"Yes, he could have. And he did," Brice said emphatically. "Think about it, Colonel. What has Wisher ever told you about himself? Where he grew up? What he did before the war? How he learned to break Skynet's code so efficiently?"
"Well... No, not really," Kara admitted.
"So I take it you don't know that his real name is Andrew Goode. Sixteen years ago, Andrew Goode and a group of other brilliant people created a highly advanced artificial intelligence the world had never seen the likes of. That intelligence became Skynet. After Judgment Day, Andrew Goode - ashamed of what he had done, and afraid of retaliation - took on the identity of Billy Wisher. He told me all of this himself."
Kara's brain - already jammed with the revelations about a conspiracy within the Resistance - felt like it might explode at any point.
No way, she thought to herself. Wisher creating Skynet? No frakking way.
And yet... it actually made sense. Billy Wisher possessed an extraordinarily talent for hacking into Skynet's most guarded systems. Yet, never once had he ever fully explained how he'd learned to do it. And rarely had he ever spoken about his life before the war. And what stories he had told were always vague, short, and inconsistent.
Exactly like the sort of responses she gave whenever someone asked her about her life before the war.
"Is that why you spent six hours with him that day you were at Fort Leopard?" Kara asked. "Why he came out of that interview looking like he'd been through hell? You were that desperate to know if he created Skynet?"
Brice nodded. "Connor wanted to know if he had any information that might aide us against Skynet. Some sort of weakness we could exploit."
Desperate to keep her sanity from disintegrating, Kara took a deep breath and held it a couple seconds, before releasing a tremendous sigh.
"Look," she said slowly, "even if what you're saying is true, it doesn't mean Wisher had anything to do with what happened to Cameron and Derek."
"No, it doesn't," Brice conceded. "But the fact remains that he's the only one in that basement that we know of who could have made Cameron do what she did."
"It could've been someone else," Kara insisted. "Like whoever messed with that T-600's chip."
Brice shook her head dismissively. "The people who modified the T-600's CPU were amateurs. They did a sloppy job covering their tracks. Whoever corrupted Cameron was a professional. Not only did they delete her memories of the incident, they replaced them with fabricated memories that fooled everyone who analyzed her CPU. There was only one man in that basement capable of this type of work. That man is Billy Wisher, AKA Andrew Goode - the man who invented Skynet."
Anger suddenly surged through Kara. She slammed her palm down on the table. "I don't care what you claim to know about Wisher!" she exploded. "I'm not going to stand here and let you accuse one of my people of being a traitor! For God's sake, he's a dying man! Can't you just let him be?"
Brice, now showing signs of frustration herself, gave an exasperated sigh. "Colonel, with all due respect, I think you're letting your loyalty towards Wisher interfere with your judgment. I understand your need to protect a fellow soldier-"
"You don't know shit about my needs or my fellow soldiers!" Kara growled.
Brice's eyes narrowed, and the muscles along her neck twitched. "You forget, Thrace, I was a soldier like you once. I had friends. People I fought side-by-side with for years. People I would have died for..."
A small sigh - perhaps unintentional - escaped the DEIMOS operative's lips. For a split second, Kara saw past the agent's cold exterior and saw a wounded human being inside. Someone who had been fighting this terrible war longer than her. Someone who had experienced just as much loss and endured just as much pain as she had.
"So, yes, I do know some shit about your needs, Colonel. I had those same needs too once," Brice said, now with a hint of bitterness in her voice. "But right now I need you to put aside those needs and help me. Wisher is only one man. There's a lot more than one man's life at stake here. General Connor is depending on us. He's depending on you."
"I know that!" Kara snapped. "You don't think I care about finding out the truth? That I don't want these bastards caught? You don't think I-I-"
She trailed off mid-sentence. Her mind churned as she debated what to do. If Brice was telling the truth, and there was a third party involved in this - possibly within the Resistance itself - then it had to be rooted out and destroyed before it could do any more damage. And if Wisher had indeed helped corrupt Cameron and forced her to torture Derek and the others in that basement, then he needed to be questioned. As much as she didn't like what Brice was asking for, this might be the only chance to get some answers. The only chance to clear Cameron's name, find the real bad guys, and make everything right.
Reluctantly, she nodded. "All right..." she said. "You can see Wisher. But only if I go with you."
"Connor wanted me to speak to Wisher alone," Brice said pointedly.
"Connor is not here," Kara growled. "That means we play by my rules. You wanna speak to Wisher, you gotta keep me in the loop." She gave the DEIMOS agent a menacing stare. "Is that clear?"
Though clearly perturbed by these arrangements, Brice nodded. "I understand."
Kara gestured at the door. "Then let's go," she said gruffly.
"An inside job?" John's mind spun its wheels haplessly. He couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You're saying all of this - the kidnappings, the torture, the leaks, the deaths - all of it was some kind of conspiracy inside the Resistance itself?"
Kara nodded. "Yeah..."
John shook his head in disbelief. Sarah and Jesse appeared equally stunned. Charley looked like he was having the most terrible headache of his life. Marcus, his expression totally unreadable as always, merely stared ahead, waiting for Kara to continue.
"Why? Why would anyone in the Resistance want to do this?" he asked. "Did-did people hate Cameron that much?"
"It's worse than that actually," said Kara solemnly. "You see, Cameron wasn't the real target. You were."
"Yeah. Someone really didn't like you."
"You mean... they were just using her to get to me?"
Unbelievable... John's blood boiled at the thought of Derek being tortured and Cameron being framed, all because someone with a grudge had been too cowardly to go after him directly.
He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Gradually his outrage turned to relief. He now knew for a fact that Cameron was not to blame for what she had done to Derek.
"All right..." he said quietly. "So, what happened next?"
"Well," said Kara slowly. "Agent Brice and I went to the infirmary to speak with Wisher. And that's when things went bad. And I mean really bad..."
October 31, 2027
"Look, Doc," said Kara, trying to stay patient, "this isn't a request. It's an order. Okay? No one is allowed in the infirmary until Agent Brice and I are finished speaking with Sergeant Wisher."
Dr. Ridge, the head of the bunker's infirmary, just folded his arms across his chest and stared at her with an expression that was as devoid of emotion as his head was devoid of hair. Had it not been for the surgical garments, he'd seem more like a bouncer guarding some seedy nightclub than a doctor.
"I apologize, but I cannot carry out such an order," he stated, sounding totally unapologetic. "The well being of my patients is my first priority. Sealing off the infirmary would be a detriment to that duty."
Kara mentally groaned. Whose bright idea had it been to turn a Triple-Eight into a doctor?
"You've only got one patient in there, Doc," she pointed out. "And he's the one we need to talk to."
"I am aware of that, Colonel," replied the machine doctor. "However, I have just received word of a medical-evac transport operating in this district. They may need to make an emergency stop here."
Kara rolled her eyes. "Gimme a break, Doc. The only time anyone drops by here is because they need quick repairs or a place to crash for the night."
Ridge didn't relent. "Protocol is clear on this matter: The infirmary must remain accessible at all times."
Agent Brice, who'd been quietly standing behind Kara this whole time, leaned forward. "This is going nowhere," she whispered into her ear.
"Just let me handle this," Kara hissed back. She returned her attention to Ridge. "Listen, Doc, just hear me out: I understand - and appreciate your position here," she said slowly, trying as hard as possible to keep her composure. "I'm not telling you to stop any new patients from entering. If and when any new patients show up here - and they desperately need medical attention, then you can have the infirmary to yourself. Brice and I will hightail it out of there. I promise. But right now, I - we - really need to speak with Wisher. Just the two of us. No interruptions. No questions. Can you do that for me? Please."
For an agonizingly protracted period of time, the machine doctor stared at her in silence. His cold, unblinking eyes seemed to bore their way into her skull, making her insides squirm. She suddenly wished she'd never come here in the first place.
Then - much to Kara's relief - Ridge nodded. "Your terms are acceptable, Colonel."
Kara smiled. "Thanks, Doc. I owe you one."
Ridge stepped away from the doors. "I shall remain out here."
"Great. Come on, Brice."
With Brice in tow, Kara walked past Ridge, pushed the doors open, and entered the infirmary. She quickly spotted the sole patient sitting up right in his bed and reading a book. Although Wisher still looked frail and sickly, at least his mood appeared to have improved. As the doors closed behind her, Kara once again found herself wishing she'd never agreed to this. A dozen voices inside her head screamed and begged her to turn around and leave before it was too late.
Kara took a deep breath and summoned her resolve. She needed to do this, no matter what wounds it might be open.
Motioning for Brice to stay behind her, she slowly stepped forward and cleared her throat. "Hey, Billy."
Looking up, Wisher put the book down and smiled. "Starbuck, I didn't know you were coming..."
His smile vanished when he noticed Agent Brice standing behind her. He looked at Kara, confused and worried. "W-What's she doing here?"
Kara gave him a reassuring look. "Don't worry about her. She's not going to screw with you or anything." She cast a glare over her shoulder at Brice. "Isn't that right?"
Brice nodded curtly. "Right..."
Kara turned back to Billy. "Listen, Wisher. We need to talk."
Wisher's confusion intensified. "About what?"
"About what really happened in that basement."
"I told you, I don't remember-"
Kara cut him off. "I know you didn't escape, Billy. I know the machines let you and the others go. And I know those machines that captured you weren't serving Skynet. And I know they couldn't have reprogrammed Cameron without help."
Wisher started to protest, "I don't understa-"
"I know, Wisher. I know..." She paused, then dropped the largest bombshell. "Just like I know how you helped create Skynet..."
Billy's eyes widened in horror. The color drained from his face. He looked past Kara and at Agent Brice.
"You-you said you wouldn't tell!" he sputtered, fear and anger palpable in his voice. "You said that only you and Connor would ever know!"
The DEIMOS agent responded with a cold expression. "I did what I had to do," she stated flatly. "It was the only way I could get the colonel to cooperate with me."
Kara glanced over her shoulder to give Brice a please-shut-the-hell-up look, before turning back to her despondent friend. "Forget about her. Focus on me," she ordered.
Wisher shook his head. "No... I'm sorry. I-I can't help you."
"Yes, you can. You have to." Kara grasped his shoulders and locked eyes with him. "Listen, Wisher, I don't care about your involvement with Skynet's creation."
Wisher blinked. "You don't?"
"You're my friend. Nothing will change that. Nothing." She released her grip on his shoulders, but continued staring at him. "Right now, I need your help. Cameron needs your help. She could be destroyed if we don't get to the bottom of this. If you want to help her, then you've got to tell us what happened." She placed a hand on top of his and squeezed firmly, but gently. "Help us, Billy. Please."
Billy blinked twice, then closed his eyes and lowered his head. Not a word left his lips.
Kara's heart sank. It seemed that he'd completely shut down.
Then, with his eyes still closed, he began to speak monotonically. "The T-600 took me down to the basement first. When I got there, there were two Triple-Eights - the same ones that grabbed us." A shudder ran through his body. "Cameron was there, too. Lying on the floor... Eyes wide open... Not moving. I-I don't know if they'd grabbed her somewhere outside or if they lured her in there... Doesn't really matter, I guess. She was there, and her chip had been removed."
Slowly he opened his eyes. Kara could see the shame and terror within them. Her stomach twisted into a knot. She suddenly felt too ill to speak.
Brice took advantage of Kara's silence and stepped forward. "What happened next?" she asked, not a hint of sympathy in her voice. "Did you help them reprogram Cameron?"
"I-I had to," Wisher said, his voice trembling. "They-They said they were gonna kill the others if I didn't help."
"What exactly did they make you do?"
"Well... at first, they wanted me to access her primary memory banks."
Brice's eyes widened in alarm, almost comically. "You didn't give them access, did you?"
Wisher shook his head. "No, no, no. I didn't. I-I told them I couldn't do it. That only General Connor himself had that type of access. They-they must've believed me because the two Triple-Eights left..."
Quickly regaining her composure, Brice gestured for him to continue. "Go on, Sergeant."
He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. "About an hour later, they came back. This time, they made me erase all her memories of being abducted and brought to the basement. They then had me disable certain safeguards, along with her facial recognition software."
"Why?" asked Brice.
"So she'd have to rely on voice recognition alone," he explained.
"I see... What happened next?"
He swallowed hard. "When she woke up, one of the Triple-Eights impersonated General Connor's voice and ordered her to interrogate the prisoners upstairs. Told her that it was all just a 'training exercise'. In case they ever needed to extract information from a human."
Aghast, Kara jumped back into the conversation. "And she went along with it? Just like that?"
Wisher nodded. "She thought she was taking orders from Connor himself."
"But-but Derek was in there. How could she think that Connor could possibly want him harmed?"
"She didn't know it was Derek. Like I said, her facial recognition protocols were disabled."
Brice interjected, "And with prisoners drugged so they couldn't speak, she had no other means of identifying who she was torturing."
Again, Wisher nodded.
Kara felt like she might throw up. Oh, Cameron...
"What happened after that?" Brice asked.
He took a deep breath. "They took me back upstairs... Then they started taking the others, one at a time, down to that basement. You... you already know what happened there. Three days later, they brought me back to the basement. Made me restore Cameron back to normal. Wipe her memory of everything that had happened down there, and fill the gaps in with some phony ones. Then they took her away and left."
"And then they let you go?" said Kara. "Just like that?"
"Only after they warned me never to tell anyone what really happened. They said if I did, people would die and it'd be my fault." He shook his head. "I-I couldn't let that happen... I didn't want anyone to die because of me... Not again."
Kara felt her a renewed surge of fury within her. Whoever these bastards are, they're gonna pay, she thought.
"Is there anything you can tell me about who these machines were working for?" she asked. "Who was behind all this?"
He shook his head. "I don't know."
"Are you sure? Do you remember anything about what was-"
She trailed off and slowly turned towards the closed hospital doors. It had suddenly occurred to her that there was some kind of argument taking place right outside the infirmary.
"Look, Doctor, we don't have time for this bullshit!" an unfamiliar voice was shouting. "We've got a dying man here! Let us in there, damn it!"
"You are mistaken, Mr. Gareth." Ridge's voice was sharper than normal. "This man is not dying. His vitals are stable."
"What the hell are you talking about? Look at him. He's gonna go under any second if we don't get him in there!"
"Colonel Thrace has given orders not to let anyone into the infirmary unless it is a medical emergency. This is not a medical emergency. Now, restrain yourself. Or I will have to call security."
"Fuck this shit... Fine. We'll do this the hard way."
Kara heard the sound of a scuffle, accompanied by an electric-like crackling noise. A piercing pop followed. Someone yelled a string of obscenities. More scuffling was heard. Then came a jarring thud as something heavy crashed violently against the hospital doors.
"The hell?" exclaimed Kara. She reached up for her radio earpiece, only to realize she'd left it back in her office. "Damn it!"
The hospital doors suddenly swung open. Dr. Ridge staggered inside like a drunk. He'd been stabbed in the right eye with some kind of object. Everyone watched, transfixed as the Triple-Eight doctor continued lurching around clumsily, until one leg became tangled with the other. He tripped, did a sort of twirl mid-fall, and landed flat on his back.
Kara mouthed a silent curse. This couldn't be good.
Before anyone could say or do anything, the doors swung open again. Three men dressed in paramedic uniforms barged in. All three carried silenced submachine guns. And all three had their weapons pointed in her direction.
Instinctively, Kara grabbed Wisher, and pulled him off his bed and onto the floor, not caring for the monitors and IV equipment that came crashing down. She flattened herself to the floor, barely half a second before the "medics" opened fire. A barrage of submachine gunfire raked Wisher's now empty bed, shredding the soft mattress and sheets.
Kara gnashed her teeth as bullets flew overhead. This situation absolutely sucked. The attackers had her pinned down behind a paltry hospital bed. She didn't have any combat armor on, nor did she have a radio to call for help.
Mere inches away, a terrified Wisher lay in a fetal position, whimpering to himself.
"Stay down, Wisher. Stay down," Kara ordered.
Wisher didn't answer, but he obviously heard her because he didn't move.
Though her heart pounded furiously Kara somehow managed to keep her mind focused. She knew that all three shooters were firing non-stop, simultaneously - which meant they would have to reload at the same time. Keeping her head low, Kara drew her sidearm from her ankle holster. She switched the safety off and gripped her weapon tightly, steeling herself for the attack. Whoever these assholes were, they'd messed with the wrong crazy Spec Ops Commander.
Finally, the pause in gunfire came. As fast as a viper, she sprang up and returned fire. Taken by surprise, the gunmen broke formation and scrambled for cover. All too soon, however, her weapon ran dry. She ducked back down into cover, silently cursing to herself. She'd depleted a whole clip and not taken out a single target; worse, she'd lost any element of surprise.
As she reloaded her weapon, she noticed Agent Brice crouching nearby, looking more dismayed than frightened. She started to ask the DEIMOS agent why she didn't have her own weapon out, but then remembered that she'd forced Brice to surrender her weapons upon entry.
Things were really, really not going well today.
Cautiously, Kara peered out from cover to evaluate the situation. All three gunmen had now reloaded their weapons. Two of them held position near the doorway. The third, however, was on the move, circling around the hospital in a clockwise fashion. "Frak..." Kara swore under her breath. The bastard intended to flank them. With his two pals near the doors covering him, she'd never get a clear shot at him.
Desperate to turn the battle around, Kara looked for something - anything that could help. Her gaze came to rest on a nearby medical trolley. A crazy idea popped inside her head.
Kara ducked back down and turned to Agent Brice. "Here..." She offered Brice her weapon. "Cover me. Keep the two guys in front busy."
Brice gave her a confused look. "I don't understand..."
"Just cover me," repeated Kara, thrusting the weapon at her. "I've got a plan. Trust me."
Though clearly uncertain about what Kara had in mind, Brice took the weapon.
Kara hastily handed her a couple spare ammunition clips. "Wait for my signal. Then start shooting."
Brice nodded. "Understood." She took up position, ready to spring into action.
"Okay, okay... Here we go..." Kara took a deep breath and readied herself. They only had once chance at this. She could not frak this up. "Three... two... one... NOW!"
At her command, Brice jumped up and opened fire on the two gunmen at the doorway. At the same time, Kara bolted from cover and made a beeline for the medical trolley. Seizing the trolley by the handles, she wheeled it around to face the third gunman. Without hesitation, she charged across the room, driving the trolley before her. The flanking gunman, unprepared for such a brazen assault, didn't get off a single shot before Kara's improvised battering ram smashed into him, sending him reeling backwards. His submachine gun flew from his hands and landed on the floor - just as Kara had been hoping.
Immediately, Kara made a mad dash for the weapon. She was less than two feet away when she found herself tackled from behind in a bear hug.
She struggled fiercely with her assailant, elbowing him in the ribs and stomping on his feet. The attacker, however, was much bigger and stronger, and determined to keep her away from his , Kara reached back with one hand and dug her nails into the attacker's face, clawing at his eyes. The man howled in agony and released his hold on her. Swiftly, she dropped down to her left knee, reached for her right ankle and pulled out the combat knife that had been strapped there. Pivoting around, she stood back up and thrust the knife into the man's stomach. Her momentum drove the blade straight through his medic jumpsuit and through the skin and muscle beneath. The man's eyes bulged in shock and pain. Showing no mercy, she twisted the knife twice for maximum damage. The gunman gagged and choked as blood spurted from his mouth. Satisfied, she let go and stepped back, allowing the man to fall to his knees and collapse, the knife still buried in his gut.
Having dispatched her attacker, she turned back around and snatched his submachine gun off the floor, then quickly took cover behind a bed. Heart pounding, but her mind as focused as ever, she peered out and appraised the situation. From this side of the room, she could see Agent Brice exchanging fire with the two remaining attackers. Despite being outnumbered and outgunned, the DEIMOS agent had held her own thus far, keeping the gunmen at bay - and more importantly, distracted.
Seizing this moment, Kara sprang from cover and opened fire with her submachine gun. Caught in a deadly crossfire, neither man stood a chance. Bullets ripped into their bodies, shredding flesh and innards. They did a brief dance before collapsing onto the floor. Possessed with unfathomable rage, Kara continued firing. Not until the last bullet in the magazine had been spent did she let go of the trigger.
A stark silence descended upon the ravaged, bullet-ridden infirmary. Panting heavily, Kara waited a full thirty seconds before lowering her weapon.
"Everyone all right?" she called out, her throat feeling a little sore.
Billy Wisher slowly gazed up from where he'd been crouching. He appeared shaken, but otherwise unharmed. "I-I'm good, Starbuck."
Agent Brice stood up. Though disheveled and drenched in sweat, she too, had not been harmed. "I'm fine. You, Thrace?"
"Not a scratch here."
"Good." Brice looked around the room. "Your plan worked..."
Smirking, Kara winked. "Hey, what can I say?"
Brice helped Wisher to his feet. Still slightly in shock, he stumbled about the infirmary, taking in the carnage. His gaze settled on the bodies of the two gunmen Kara had just shot dead.
"Who-who were these guys?" he asked, shaking his head.
Kara put her submachine gun aside and wiped the sweat from her forehead. "I don't know. But I'm pretty sure they were here to kill you."
Wisher sat down on the edge of what was left of his bed and shook his head again. "My God..." he whispered. "I-I can't believe this is happening..."
Brice looked at Kara. "We'd better call security."
Kara nodded. "Yeah. Good idea. There's a phone outside. I'll go get-"
An agonizing groan suddenly caught her attention. She turned and saw the first attacker lying on the floor, stirring. Immediately, she and Brice rushed over to him. Despite having been stabbed, he was still alive - though barely conscious. Kara's combat knife remained embedded in his gut.
As they approached, the wounded gunman made a feeble attempt to sit up.
"H-help me..." he croaked, blood dripping down his mouth. "P-please."
Brice knelt beside him and held him down. "Stay absolutely still," she ordered. "Do not move. If you move, you'll bleed out. Do you understand?"
The man nodded weakly.
Brice looked up at Kara. "We can't remove the knife. Too risky. We'll need Dr. Ridge's help."
Kara looked in the direction of the hospital doors. Dr. Ridge still lay motionless on the floor, face-up, that strange tool still stuck in his eye. "That could be a problem..."
Wished pried himself off his bullet-ridden bed. "Let me check him out."
"Billy," Kara started to protest, "you shouldn't-"
"I'm the only one in here who could possibly fix whatever's wrong with him, Starbuck." He staggered over to the incapacitated Triple-Eight. Kneeling beside Ridge, he put a hand on one side of the machine's head.
"Chip is intact," he remarked. "He should have rebooted by now... Hold on a sec. Need to get whatever the hell this is out... Ugh..."
He slowly plucked the device out of Ridge's skull. Grimacing, he tacitly inspected the blood-soaked object.
"Looks like a mini-EMP device. Very short-range. Only works on contact. That's why they stuck it in his eye. Wanted to get as close to the CPU as possible."
"What about Ridge? Will he be all right?" asked Kara.
"He should be fine now that this thing's out of him," said Wisher, gingerly tossing the device away. "Shouldn't have been any permanent damage to the CPU."
"When will he be up?"
"Not too long. Probably in a minute or-"
Wisher stopped mid-sentence as the front doors suddenly swung open for a third time. A man, naked from the waist up, stepped inside. A mass of bandages covered his bare chest. A bloodstained bandana had been wrapped around his forehead. Yet, despite his "injuries" his face contained no hint of pain or discomfort. Just the cold stare of a killer. His harsh gaze locked onto Wisher, still on his knees and less than six feet away. Without hesitation, the newcomer reached behind him and pulled out a gun. He pointed it at Wisher, who froze like a deer caught in the headlights.
"Gun!" screamed Kara. "Move, Wisher!"
Her warning went unheeded. Wisher, as if in a trance-like state, continued staring ahead. A thunderous crack echoed within the infirmary as the gun discharged.
Kara was barely aware of the horrified scream that tore itself out of her lungs. She watched as Billy went reeling backwards. His body seemed to fall in slow motion. He hit the floor with a dull thud.
Brice jumped to her feet, Kara's loaned gun in hand. Three shots rang out from her weapon. The assailant took two rounds to the chest and one to the head. He was dead before he made it to the floor.
The gunman's demise barely registered with Kara. She was too busy staring numbly at Wisher, who seemed to be sliding across the room toward her. It took half a second before she realized that she was the one in motion.
Kneeling over Wisher, she grabbed him by the shoulders. "Wisher?" she said pleadingly. "Wisher, can you hear me?"
An agonized moan escaped his mouth as blood seeped rapidly from his wound. Immediately, she began applying pressure. "Hang in there, Wisher," she urged. "You're gonna be fine. Just stay with me. Okay?"
Blood started oozing from his mouth. "Star... Starbuck..." he gasped.
"Focus on me, Wisher. Come on, stay with me!"
His breathing grew increasingly erratic. "Please..." he rasped. "I'm - I'm..."
"Wisher, stay with me. Stay with me! You hear me? STAY WITH ME."
By now, a pool of blood had begun to form underneath him, despite her best efforts to slow the bleeding. As Kara tried to think of something - anything - to do, she heard a high-pitched whirring sound. She looked up and saw Dr. Ridge rising from the floor.
The hairs on the back of her neck stood up. "Doc... are you okay?" she asked, the memory of the rogue Triple-Eight at Topanga flashing through her mind.
Ridge reached up and plucked out what was left of his right eyeball. He wiped the gore from his face, then turned to face her. "Affirmative," he said, without emotion, his red Terminator eye glowing through the empty socket. "Damage is minimal. All systems restored."
A wave of relief washed over Kara, followed immediately by renewed urgency. "Then help Wisher! He's been shot!"
Ridge's exposed red eye whirred and rotated itself to gaze down, first at her, then at the dying man she was trying to save.
"Please move aside, Colonel," he ordered.
Kara stood up and got out of the way, allowing the cyborg doctor to kneel over Wisher. He expertly placed one hand over the gunshot wound, and the other on the pulse of Wisher's neck.
"He has lost much blood already," he stated. "Two, possibly three pints."
Kara gave him a pleading look. "Can you save him?"
"Possibly. But only if I get him into surgery now."
Distracted, Kara and Ridge both turned to stare at Agent Brice.
"We need to save this man, too." She pointed at the wounded gunman, still lying on the floor with Kara's knife stuck in his chest. The man had taken a turn for the worse. He was now gasping and thrashing about uncontrollably.
"I cannot attend to two men simultaneously," Ridge said.
"Forget about that asshole!" Kara snapped. "Save Wisher! Now!"
Brice protested, "This man's going into shock. He needs help!"
"That piece of scum can die for all I care."
"Colonel, we need him alive!"
"Shut the hell up, Brice! You're not in charge here!"
"It's all right, Starbuck..."
Startled, she looked down at Wisher.
He stared back up at her with a grimace. "You don't have to save me," he murmured.
Kara shook her head vigorously. "No, no, no, no. I am not letting you die, Wisher. Not here. Not like this."
"You-you gotta keep the others safe..." he rasped hoarsely. "You gotta save Cameron, remember?"
"I'm ready, Starbuck. I'm ready to go."
Looking past his pained expression, Kara saw a resigned, almost tranquil look in his eyes.
"Colonel Thrace," said Dr. Ridge, his eye flashing as if to convey urgency, "I require your decision now. Otherwise we will lose both men."
Fighting back tears, she squeezed her own eyes shut and hung her head low. She knew what she had to do - no matter how much it killed her.
Gods forgive me.
Taking a deep, painful breath, she opened her eyes and turned to Dr. Ridge. "Do it. Save the bastard."
Ridge nodded compliantly. "Yes, Colonel."
He stood up and, leaving Wisher to his fate, walked over to the wounded assassin, who was still thrashing about, moaning in agony. With ease, the Triple-Eight doctor plucked him off the floor, and carried him into the surgery ward.
Brice turned to Kara. "I'm sorry-"
Kara cut her off with a fixed stare that could have stopped an HK in its tracks. "Don't. I don't wanna hear it, okay? Just do me a big favor: Get out there, find the nearest phone, and get Security on the line. Tell them to put this place on maximum lockdown. No one in or out. If they ask why you're giving orders, just give 'em my personal clearance code. Alpha Red 3-1-9. Got it?"
Brice nodded. "Understood." She swiftly left the infirmary without another word.
A wave of exhaustion suddenly overtook Kara. Her knees gave way and she crumbled back to the floor next to Wisher. His gasps of pain had stopped, and his eyes were now closed. She gingerly placed a finger on his neck. She felt his skin growing colder by the moment and his pulse fading rapidly. It wouldn't be long now.
He stirred and let out a faint sigh. "Starbuck, are you still there?"
Kara grasped his hand tightly. "I'm right here, Wisher."
"Will you... stay with me?"
Kara swallowed back a sob. "I'm not going anywhere. I promise."
Wisher's bloodstained lips formed a small smile.
For the next twenty minutes, not a word passed between the two. The end itself came without so much as a whimper.
"That," said Kara glumly, "was quite possibly the worst day of my life. I've seen a lot of good people die, but I never had to let someone die. Not when I could have still saved them."
John heard the agony in her voice. He felt a twinge of pain in his stomach. "I'm sorry, Starbuck. You know it wasn't your fault, right?"
Kara sighed. "Yeah, I know. Doesn't make me feel any better, though."
"You did what was required, Colonel," Marcus stated astutely. "As difficult as it may have been for you, sacrificing Wisher to save the gunman was the logical decision."
"That definitely does not make me feel any better."
"At least you were with him," said John, putting a hand on her shoulder for comfort. "I mean, no one should have to die alone, right?"
"And at least he knew what he was dying for," Sarah added. "At least he was prepared to die. Unlike other men I knew."
Kara raised an eyebrow. "You're thinking of Andy Goode, aren't you?"
"More like the way he died..."
"I know what you mean. Derek told me what he did to him. What he had to do."
Jesse unexpectedly spoke up. "He told me too."
Everyone stared at her.
Looking a little awkward, she explained, "The last time I saw him, Derek told me about Wisher - Goode - whatever his name was. Derek told me how much he loved that man. He told me he hadn't hesitated to kill him... but I saw the hurt in his eyes." She paused. "I'd like to think that's why he let me live..."
I'd like to think so too, thought John. He cleared his throat. "So, what happened next?"
Kara gave a contemptuous huff. "Well... Dr. Ridge managed to save the surviving gunman. Turned out he was just some lowlife mercenary. He and his pals had been hired to kill Wisher."
"By the same people behind the conspiracy against Connor and Cameron?" asked Marcus.
"That goes without saying..."
Eager to get to the bottom of things, John jumped in. "Did you get him to tell you who was behind this conspiracy? Who leaked the video? Who kidnapped Derek and forced Wisher to corrupt Cameron?"
A slight smirk crossed Kara's face. "Well... yes and no. It wasn't actually me who spoke to him."
November 1st, 2027
In the twenty-four hours that had passed since the showdown in the infirmary, Kara had kept herself quite busy - mainly chewing people out.
"Explain to me again how four assholes manage to get inside my bunker, shoot up the infirmary, and kill one of my people?" she demanded.
A flustered Lieutenant Harris spoke up. "Sorry, ma'am. No one saw this coming. I mean, these guys were human. They had a military transponder. They had uniforms and the proper IDs. And they had a man who they said needed medical attention. The guards had no reason to detain them." He shook his head. "Basically, we got suckered."
Yes... Yes, we did, Kara thought darkly.
She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly, allowing her anger to dissipate. Despite the loss she'd just suffered, she needed to stay focused. People here were still depending on her for leadership. She had to keep her head in the game.
"All right then..." she said. "How are we doing on lockdown?"
Harris cleared his throat and looked down at his PDA. "As per your orders, the lockdown is in full effect. All communications have been restricted. Patrols have been doubled. All entrances and exits are sealed. The attackers' vehicle has been quarantined. We're standing by to process it for evidence."
"And our... guest. Has he said anything?"
"Not yet. If you'd like, I could ask the guards to start encouraging him."
Kara held up a hand. "No, Harris. I promised Agent Brice that I'd let her handle the interrogation." She sighed. "How is everyone holding up?"
Harris scratched his head. "They're pretty shaken. Confused. Wanting to know what the hell is going on." He paused. "What about you, ma'am? You all right?"
Kara looked away, a wave of shame coming over her. "How am I supposed to be all right, Vincent? Wisher is dead."
"It's not your fault, Starbuck."
"This is my command," Kara countered, her heart aching with guilt. "I'm responsible for everything that happens here. A man died under my watch. A good man. That's on me."
"But the rest of us are still alive. You're responsible for that, too." Harris placed a hand on her shoulder. "You'll get us through this, Starbuck. You always do."
Despite guilt still painfully tearing away at her, Kara treated Harris with a small smile. "Thanks, Vincent."
Suddenly the door opened. Agent Brice stuck her head inside. "Colonel, we need to talk."
Kara's smile turned into a scowl. "Can it wait, Brice?"
"No. It can't..." said a voice from behind the DEIMOS agent.
Kara's heart froze. Her entire body went numb. All sorts of words flooded her mind, but none left her throat. Completely paralyzed, she could only stand there and watch as General John Connor stepped out of the shadows.
Gaping like a slack-jawed moron, Harris made the sign of the cross over his chest. "Holy shit..." His trembling hand shot up to his forehead to offer a hasty salute.
"Give us the room, please, Lieutenant," Connor ordered.
"Y-yes, sir." Harris made a quick exit.
As soon as the lieutenant had gone, Connor strode into the room. He looked around a couple times, as if wanting to be absolutely certain no one else was here. Finally, he addressed Kara. "I assume you're surprised to see me, Colonel."
It took Kara a few seconds to find her voice. "Well... uh, yeah. You could say that..."
"I apologize, but I needed my arrival here to be as discrete as possible."
"You don't say..."
By now Kara's shock had turned to relief... and irritation. "Not that I'm unhappy to see you, sir, but just what the hell are you doing here? How-how'd you even get in here without anyone knowing? We're supposed to be on maximum lockdown."
Connor shrugged. "I know. It took me a full eight minutes to get inside."
Kara looked back at the doorway and shot Brice a nasty look. "Did you know about this? That he was planning on showing up like this?"
Brice shook her head. "I'm just as surprised as you are, Colonel." She looked at Connor. "General, with your permission, I'd like to begin interrogating the prisoner as soon as possible."
"That won't be necessary, Agent Brice," said Connor. "I need you to begin processing the attackers' ambulance, immediately. I'll speak with our friend myself."
Brice frowned in confusion, but nodded obediently. "Yes, sir." She gave a crisp salute, turned, and departed.
Connor returned his attention to Kara. "What's the status of the prisoner?"
"Wha-? Oh... uh..." Kara blinked, her train of thought trying to realign itself. "He, um... he was released from the infirmary less than an hour ago. He's being held in Storage Unit B."
"Take me to him."
As if there was anything else she could say...
The two made a short trip to the storage unit where the captured gunman was being held. The guards outside didn't even bother asking questions when they saw Connor. They just stepped aside and let them enter.
The prisoner was seated in a chair placed in the center of the tiny, dark makeshift prison under a flickering lamp that hung from the ceiling. His arms and legs were shackled to the chair. He no longer wore that phony medic uniform, but was now garbed in ragged civilian clothing. His face bore bruises of the earlier struggle in the infirmary, and his knife wound was covered in several layers of bandages.
Kara felt a surge of rage as she laid eyes on the captive. Just looking at him, seeing this pathetic piece of scum still breathing while her friend was dead made her sick to her stomach. Rarely had she ever wished suffering upon another human being, but right now, she'd be more than happy to see this man die a slow, painful death. In fact, if General Connor hadn't been here right now, she'd probably-
She cut herself off, mid-thought.
Relax, Starbuck, relax. Let Connor handle this.
Connor walked right up to the prisoner and stared down at him.
"Mr. Gareth?" he said calmly. "Shall we call you that? That's the name on your ID. Fake, obviously."
The prisoner looked up and squinted at Connor. "Sure, whatever," he replied, shrugging his shoulders.
"Very well then... Do you know who I am, Mr. Gareth?"
"Everyone knows who you are." The prisoner's tone was flat and matter-of-fact and his face was devoid of emotion. He could not, however, mask the increase in his breathing, nor the throbbing along his neck.
"Then you know," said Connor, "that the man you and your friends killed was one of my men."
Gareth shrugged his shoulders indifferently. "Yeah? What about it? Not like you haven't lost plenty already."
Fury blossomed within Kara. Unable to stop herself, she started to move toward the prisoner.
"Colonel..." Connor's steely voice stopped her in her tracks. He glanced over his shoulder and gave her a stern, but reassuring look.
Kara felt her rage dissipate, as her better judgement reasserted control. Breathing slowly, she backed off.
Turning back around, Connor pulled up an empty chair and sat down in front of Gareth.
"It's true," he stated. "I've lost many, many men over the course of this war. Good men. I lose them every day - every hour - every second. It's a terrible reality that I've had to learn to accept." He folded his arms across his chest. "But one of my men being murdered by another human being? That is something that I cannot accept."
His voice was calm, but there was tranquil fury in his words.
The mercenary stared down at his feet. "It...it was nothing personal," he murmured. "Just a job."
"I know that," said Connor curtly. "I also know that the one who hired you is a member of the Resistance itself. And I'm pretty sure you know exactly who that person is."
Gareth looked back up. "Let's just say I did know. What's in it for me?"
Connor shook his head. "I'm going to be honest with you, Mr. Gareth. Regardless of how much you help us, you won't be going free any time soon, if ever."
For a few seconds, Gareth stared wordlessly at Connor. Then he gave a snort of disdain. "Then I guess we're done talking."
"Are we?" Connor leaned forward, giving the prisoner a frosty look. "Consider this: Your friends are dead because they made the mistake of attacking my people." He paused a moment, then ominously added, "And you will be, too, if you don't cooperate."
"Please," Gareth scoffed. "You're not gonna kill me. You need me. Just like you needed your metal bitch."
Kara thought she saw the back of Connor's neck tense. His expression, however, remained calm. "Oh, I'm not talking about me, Mr. Gareth. I'm talking about the one who hired you. Sooner or later, Colonel Thrace will have to issue a report on this incident to Sector Command. What do you think will happen when your employer learns that you've been captured? I don't think he's going to leave a loose end like you just hanging. Do you?"
Taken aback, Gareth shook his head vigorously. "No... You're not gonna let that happen. You need me alive, Connor. You need me."
"Maybe... maybe not. If you won't tell us who hired you to kill Billy Wisher, then maybe whoever's hired to kill you will tell us. Whether we catch him before or after he completes his mission won't matter." Connor's eyes bore into Gareth, like iron spears piercing flesh. "Do you understand where I'm going with this?"
The color drained from Gareth's face. He began sweating bullets and trembling uncontrollably.
Got 'em by the balls now, Kara thought. Nicely done, Connor.
Gareth glared at Connor. "How do I know you won't screw me over anyway?"
"Because," said Connor evenly, "I'm not that type of guy." He glanced over his shoulder at Kara. "Right, Colonel?"
She nodded. "Right."
Connor returned his attention to Gareth. "We walk out of here in thirty seconds. What's it going to be? Do we report you as being amongst the dead, which keeps you alive? Or do we tell the truth - and hope that the next person sitting here is more cooperative?"
Gareth's shoulders slumped in defeat. "Fuck..." he cursed under his breath. "All right, all right, I'll give you what you want. Just gimme a moment to think, okay? This is gonna take a while."
Connor leaned back in his chair and smiled. "Take your time, Mr. Gareth. You're not going anywhere, after all."
Less than thirteen hours later and nearly half a sector away from Hyena Bunker, an armored vehicle carrying John Connor, Kara Thrace, and Veronica Brice pulled up outside of Grizzly Base, the headquarters of the Seattle Local Forces. Connor stepped out first, followed in short order by Kara and Brice. Behind them, four more armored vehicles pulled up and unloaded twenty heavily armed Tech Com troops, including Lieutenant Harris.
Taking the lead, Connor strode up to the entrance of the base. A guard dog began to bark in alarm. Alerted by the noise, the soldiers guarding the entrance swiftly trained their search lights and weapons on him.
Connor raised his arms. "Stand down, all of you," he ordered, his voice calm but authoritative. "I think you all know who I am."
The dog stopped barking. The guards lowered their weapons and stared in shock as Connor walked right up to them.
"G-General Connor?" one of them stammered in disbelief.
Connor nodded. "That's right, Sergeant." He paused to stroke the guard dog's nose. The canine whimpered affirmatively in response.
"Where's General Sloan?" asked Connor.
"Ummm..." The sergeant struggled to think. "In his office. I'll go get him, if you'd like-"
"That won't be necessary. Just let us inside."
The sergeant turned around and knocked three times on the heavy steel door leading into the compound. A narrow slot opened up. A heavy machine gun barrel thrust itself out. The guard leaned forward and uttered something to the unseen gunner. The gun barrel promptly withdrew and the slot closed back up. From the behind the door came the sounds of heavy bolts being slid out of their cradles, one by one. Then with an almost animal-like groan, the door swung open.
Connor turned to Kara and the others with him.
"Thrace, Brice, Harris, with me," he commanded. "The rest of you, stay out here. No one leaves or enters without my say so."
"Yes, sir," the Tech Com troops replied in unison.
Without another word, he strode through the open door and into Grizzly Base. Kara and Brice followed closely behind, flanking him on either side, while Lieutenant Harris brought up the rear, clutching a plasma rifle tightly to his chest. The group headed through the base with swiftness and single-minded purpose. They ignored the confused inhabitants who gawked and whispered as they passed by. Walking alongside Connor and the others, Kara could feel the anger boiling inside of her. At the same time, she felt a sense of joyous anticipation. At long last, they were going to set things right.
Within a matter of minutes, they reached Sloan's office. Connor addressed the lone soldier standing outside. "Step aside, Private. I need to speak with the general."
The guard started to protest. "Sir, I can't let you in without-"
Connor gave the man a piercing stare. "Son... I said step aside."
"Y-yes, sir." The guard got out of the way.
Without even knocking, Connor opened the door and stepped through. Kara followed him, Brice and Harris trailing behind.
Inside, they discovered General Benedict Sloan and several of his subordinates gathered around a large conference table, studying an enormous holographic map of the Seattle Sector. Sloan looked up and, upon seeing them, recoiled backwards into the table. Such reaction brought immense satisfaction to Kara, who couldn't help but grin.
"Hello, Ben," said Connor evenly. "You look surprised to see me."
Sloan struggled to stay standing. "General Connor? What-what are you doing here? I-I thought you had-"
"Reports of my abdication have been greatly exaggerated."
"Forgive me, sir," said Sloan, trying to regain his composure. "I-I had no idea you were even in this sector..."
Spotting the others, Sloan gave them a quick nod. "Colonel. Always a pleasure to see you..."
Kara smirked. "Can't say it's always a pleasure to see you, General. But in this case, yes - it is quite a pleasure."
"...and Lieutenant Harris, good to see you, too."
Harris snorted. "I'll bet it is," he muttered sardonically.
Sloan's eyes came to rest on Agent Brice. "I don't think we've met..."
The DEIMOS agent said nothing. She just stared straight ahead, as cold as an ice statue.
Sloan turned his attention back to Connor. He put on a very unconvincing smile. "John... I can't tell you how glad I am to see you. We've been extremely worried about you."
"I'm sure you have..." Connor deadpanned.
"Sir, may I ask what you're doing here?"
"I think you know exactly why I'm here, Ben." Connor's gaze turned to the junior officers. "Give us the room, folks."
The men exchanged baffled looks but complied with the order. They quickly filed out of the room.
Connor returned his attention to Sloan. For ten long seconds, the two men just stared at each other. Connor's face was a mask of pure stone. No anger, no sadness. Just a cold stare.
At last, Connor broke the silence. "Honestly, I'm not entirely surprised, Benedict. You've always struck me as the type who might do something like this. But I told myself that you'd be sensible enough to at least wait until after the war before making any sort of move." He shook his head. "It seems that that was just wishful thinking on my part."
Sloan frowned. "Pardon me, sir. I'm not entirely sure I understand-"
Connor held up his hand. "Don't, Ben. Just don't." His voice was sharper than a steel bayonet. "I know what you've done."
"We know what you've done," Kara chimed in. "And you are so, so screwed."
Connor cleared his throat. "Colonel, you mind..."
"Sorry, sir," said Kara, snickering softly to herself.
A bead of sweat ran down Sloan's forehead as Connor began slowly circling around the conference table.
"It's over, Ben," Connor declared, stopping near the table's edge. "Mr. Gareth has told us everything."
"Who?" asked Sloan.
"Gareth. One of the men who attacked Hyena Bunker and killed Sergeant Wisher in the infirmary. He's been very forthcoming."
"He-he what?" Pure and utter shock enveloped Sloan's face. "Colonel Thrace's report said all the attackers had been killed."
"Did it?" Kara grinned wickedly. "Must have been a mistake. My bad."
"In any case," Connor continued, "Gareth tells me he and his friends were hired to kill Sergeant Wisher."
"Hired?" Sloan asked, attempting a look of bewilderment. "Hired by who?"
Connor's eyes narrowed. "By you, Ben."
For a couple seconds, Sloan was dead silent. Then he started to laugh. "That-that's ridiculous."
"I agree," said Connor. "But it's also true. You hired Gareth and his friends to kill Wisher. Just like you hired them to kill Agent Kane last month."
Again, Sloan gave a light, nervous chuckle. "John, please... surely you're not buying the word of a murderer."
"It's not just his word. We have other evidence. Like that ambulance the gunmen arrived in. That vehicle is registered to this base. Did you know you're missing a bus, General?"
Sloan didn't laugh this time. "I-I was just informed about it this morning-"
"It left here three days ago. Gareth told us exactly where he and his associates hijacked it. He also told us where the bodies of its crew could be found." Connor paused to give Sloan a look of utmost disgust. "Those were your own men, Sloan. They trusted you."
Sloan started to protest, "John, I don't know what you've been told, but I-"
Connor slammed his fist down on the table, making the holographic map flicker.
Sloan recoiled in alarm. So did everyone else - including Kara.
"You know that I know what you've done," Connor said, his voice low and gravely. "Don't insult me by pretending otherwise."
Sloan opened his mouth to respond, but no words came out. His knees trembled and his arms quivered. He looked like he might crap himself any moment.
Kara couldn't blame him. She felt a little scared right now. This was the first time she'd seen John Connor truly angry. His expression contained not the faintest trace of pity or compassion. Every scar, every muscle, every line on his face seemed to pulsate with fury. His eyes blazed as if ready to fire plasma bolts.
"You arranged for that ambulance to be ambushed, knowing exactly what would happen to its crew," Connor asserted. "Just like you arranged for Wisher - a sick man - to be killed. Just like you arranged for Agent Kane to be killed weeks ago. All this to conceal your involvement in the abductions and torture of my men back in January. I'm fairly certain that you ultimately intended to have Mr. Gareth and his associates killed, too, once they had finished doing your dirty work. You were probably delighted when you found out that Colonel Thrace and Agent Brice had saved you the trouble."
Connor fixed Sloan with a baleful stare. "Unfortunately for you, Gareth survived. And he's told us everything. Or at least enough for me to place you under arrest for treason, conspiracy, and murder."
Sloan's shoulders sank. For nearly thirty seconds, he seemed at a total loss for what to say. Finally, he just shook his head, seemingly defeated. "It wasn't supposed to have happened this way," he murmured. "It-it shouldn't have happened like this."
"And yet, here we are," said Connor coldly.
Sloan held up his hands pleadingly. "Please, John. Let's talk about this... There-there must be something I can do. Some way we can work things out... I-I know I screwed up. But I wasn't the one calling the shots."
Connor raised an eyebrow. "Is that so?"
"There's a lot I can tell you. But only if-"
Connor cut him off. "Whatever you have to say, Ben, I'm not interested."
"Agent Brice, on the other hand, I'm sure will be very eager to hear you out. Aren't you, Brice?"
Brice nodded. "Yes, sir," she replied, speaking for the first time since they'd entered the base. "And while we're at it, we can also talk about what happened to Agent Kane."
This time, Sloan said nothing. He simply stared straight ahead, his expression vacant.
Connor looked over his shoulder. "Lieutenant, would you please relieve General Sloan of his weapon?"
"With pleasure, sir." Harris strode over to Sloan. "General, your weapon?"
Showing no emotion, Sloan surrendered his sidearm to Harris without protest.
"Agent Brice, take the general into custody," Connor commanded.
"Yes, sir." Brice produced a pair of handcuffs and walked over to Sloan. She methodically proceeded to secure his hands behind his back. Again, Sloan offered no resistance, nor displayed any reaction. Possibly one last effort to conceal his true self.
"Goodbye, Ben," Connor said quietly. He turned away. "Get him out of here."
Brice and Harris took Sloan by the arms and started to march him towards the door.
"Hold on, hold on." Kara held up a hand. "One thing first. This won't take long, I promise."
Harris and Brice halted, confused. They looked back at Connor. He, in turn, looked at Kara. After a beat, he gave a tiny nod of approval.
"Thanks." Kara strutted right up to Sloan. "General Sloan, sir? I have a little something for you..."
Before Sloan could say or do anything, she promptly drove her fist into his face, dropping him to the floor like a sack of potatoes.
"That was for Derek and Cameron... and especially my friend, Billy Wisher," she hissed, staring down at Sloan as he writhed helplessly on the floor groaning in pain.
With a sigh of tremendous satisfaction, Kara stepped back to admire her work. Her knuckles stung a bit, but she didn't mind. She'd been waiting a long, long time to do this.
Harris flashed her a grin. "Nice, Starbuck..."
Brice said nothing, though Kara thought she saw a hint of a smile appear in the corner of her mouth.
Despite his hands being restrained behind his back, Sloan somehow managed to sit up. His mask of stoicism shattered, he glared up at Kara. Though clearly humiliated, he remained as conceited as ever.
"So noble... so misguided..." He snorted contemptuously as a trickle of blood ran down his nose. "I was being sincere with my offer, Thrace. I really did want you to join me."
Kara huffed. "Is that so?"
"You could have helped win the greatest victory in Mankind's history. Secured yourself a place in the future of this world. Instead you choose to remain just another piece on Connor's chessboard. Win or lose, when this game is over, you'll be put in the box with all the other pieces. Quietly tucked away until the next game."
Kara just rolled her eyes. "Yeah, well, maybe. Maybe not. I really don't give a shit. You're finished. And now you're gonna spend whatever's left of your pathetic life in misery and suffering."
Sloan's bloodstained lips curled into a sneer. "You think I won't find a way out of this? I'm a survivor, Thrace. You don't have a clue what-"
The butt of Harris' plasma rifle struck Sloan in the back of the head. The disgraced general slumped onto his side, unconscious.
"Sorry 'bout that," Harris said sheepishly, "Lost my grip for a second there."
Kara smirked. "Hey, don't sweat it, Harris. Maybe when he wakes up, he'll have something actually worth listening to."
Connor cleared his throat. "All right, that's enough. Brice, Harris, pick him up and get him out of here."
"Yes, sir." Harris and Brice again took Sloan by the arms, pulled him off the floor, and proceeded to drag their unconscious prisoner out of the office and out of sight.
Grinning ear-to-ear, Kara turned to General Connor. "I'm feeling a lot better now."
Connor treated her with a wryly smile of his own. "Glad to hear it."
"Just wish Cam was here to see this..."
Kara's smile vanished as a sudden feeling of trepidation took hold.
"Where is Cameron?"
In an instant, Connor's expression became stone cold. "I sent her away on a long-term assignment."
"For how long?" asked Kara, dreading the worst.
After a slight hesitation, Connor answered, "Indefinitely."
Kara protested, "But-but we just proved that she was innocent. That it wasn't her fault."
"I know," Connor replied grimly. "But that won't matter. Some people might understand, but most won't. She'll never be accepted amongst us."
"So we're just throwing her under the bus to appease the masses?"
"This was for her own safety as much as it was for everyone else's, Colonel."
"Can't we just wait until everyone's calmed down a bit? Then bring her back?"
Connor shook his head. "I couldn't bring her back even if I wanted to. It's out of my hands now, Colonel."
Kara's stomach tightened painfully. All the joy and triumph she'd been experiencing moments ago had completely dissolved, replaced by the agony and despair of losing yet another ally. She hadn't even gotten a chance to say goodbye.
Devastated, she drooped her head low.
Davy. Jack. Kyle. Derek. Wisher. And now Cameron. Was there anyone she wasn't going to lose?
Connor placed a hand under her chin and slowly lifted her face so they were seeing eye-to-eye. His expression softened. "You miss her, I understand that. I miss her too." He released her and stepped back. "She was my last link to someone I loved. You know that, Starbuck. You were there on that ship when we found her."
Kara's mind flashed back to years earlier when she and Connor had been aboard the derelict aircraft carrier. She remembered the pain in his eyes as he cradled Allison Young's lifeless body. She saw the same pain in his eyes now, just as raw and as real as it had been back then.
She swallowed hard and nodded. "Yes, sir. I'm-I'm okay now."
"Good," said Connor. His eyes turned to iron and his face hardened once more. "Let's get moving, Colonel. We've got a lot more work ahead of us."
John rubbed his chin. "So that's the real reason why Cameron was sent back..." he remarked. "It wasn't just to protect me. It was to protect her, too."
Kara nodded. "Yeah, that's about right."
"I always figured there was something else going on," Sarah commented.
Jesse just shook her head. "Even if all this is true," she said dismissively, "it doesn't change anything."
A renewed surge of frustration and anger pulsed through John. "Have you been listening to anything Starbuck's been saying? Cameron was set up! She was innocent!"
"That's hardly the point."
"Hardly the point?" John wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake the stubbornness out of her. "Don't you understand, Jesse? You were wrong about this whole thing! Cameron was never manipulating me. I never needed to be saved or protected from her. If there's anyone I needed protection from, it was you. You killed Riley, betrayed Derek, tried to poison my faith in Cameron, and put us all in danger for nothing."
"I did it for you! To prevent you from making the mistakes my Connor made," Jesse snapped back. "Regardless of what really happened or who was responsible for reprogramming Cameron, the point is your future self - the man we trusted to lead us - knew that she was dangerous. He learned months in advance what had happened to Derek and the others, and he did nothing about it."
"Well, what would you have done?" John shot back. "Just thrown Cameron aside like a broken tool?"
"I'd have put any sympathy or sentiment I may have had aside, and taken whatever steps were necessary to protect my fellow humans. It's what the people who built Skynet should have done when they first realized the danger it posed. It's what I should have done on the Jimmy Carter when the captain brought that-that thing onboard. It's what you should have done the moment you learned what Cameron was truly capable of."
"So I should've gotten rid of her on the spot, is that it? Without any proof whatsoever? Is that the sort of leader I'm supposed to be?"
"At the very least she should have been locked up and kept isolated from everyone else while the matter was investigated - properly." Jesse glanced at Kara. "If I understand things correctly, no one really bothered to investigate until after that video was released?"
Kara sighed. "Yeah..." she admitted, rather reluctantly. "That's pretty much what happened."
"Exactly!" Jesse turned back to John. "You can't possibly tell me that was the right thing to do? Can you?"
John took a moment to think it over. "No," he said sincerely. "It wasn't. My Future Self messed up. He should have told you the truth. He shouldn't have tried to cover things up. But that was his mistake. His fault. Not Cameron's."
Jesse let out a groan. "You still don't get it, do you? This has nothing to do with fault. This is about weakness. Your weakness. Cameron is the weak link in the chain. Not just in the future, but here as well. She's a liability. She makes you vulnerable."
John shook his head in adamant denial. "You're wrong."
"Am I? Can you honestly tell me that there hasn't been a time when she hasn't put you in danger? When you've done something to put yourself in danger because of your faith in her? When you've failed to act because you didn't want to hurt her? Can you tell me that?"
A tense silence followed as John thought back to his past actions: His refusal to destroy Cameron's chip the first time she had gone bad. His unwillingness to destroy her when she had been possessed by the Kaliba AI. His declaration to Jesse in their previous encounter that he'd have kept Cameron even if he had believed she'd killed Riley.
"You can't, can you?" Jesse said pointedly. She turned to Sarah. "You've had this sort of discussion with him, haven't you, Sarah?"
Sarah raised her eyebrows. "Too many times."
"Then you agree with me, don't you?"
Sarah sighed. "A few days ago, I would have. But now... Now I'm not sure. I've learned some things recently."
"What things?" Jesse demanded. "We've all heard the 'full story.' It changes nothing."
"That's not what I'm talking about." Sarah's eyes momentarily shifted sideways to look at Kara. "It's... complicated."
Jesse shook her head. "There's nothing complicated about any of this." She turned back to John. "Cameron may be programmed to protect you, but she will drag you down if you let her. And when you go down, so do the rest of us."
John remained silent. He suddenly didn't know what to say anymore. As much as he wanted to disagree with Jesse, in a way, he realized, she was right. He had made bad decisions because of Cameron - or rather, because of his feelings for her.
To his - and everyone else's surprise, Charley Dixon suddenly broke the silence. "Not to sound insensitive to what's going on in the future world or wherever this stuff has happened - I'm sure it's very sad, but why should we care about what's going on over there? As far as I'm concerned, none of this has happened yet."
Jesse glared at him. "Not yet. But it will."
"Not necessarily," retorted Kara. "Not if we put a stop to it."
Jesse scoffed. "Oh come on, Starbuck. You really think you can stop Skynet from being created?"
"We can try."
"Yeah. And get ourselves killed. What's going to happen, then, huh? A world without John Connor to lead it?"
Jesse's sarcastic remark unexpectedly sparked something inside of John's head.
"That might be the point," he murmured.
Jesse turned to him. "What?"
"A world without John Connor to lead it..." he said, speaking to himself rather than to Jesse. A sudden epiphany had come over him.
He turned to Marcus. "Why exactly does my future self want to stop Skynet here?"
Marcus, who'd been mostly silent throughout, answered matter-of-factly. "To counter Skynet's own efforts of creating a favorable timeline for itself. And to ensure human victory against Skynet in his own timeline. According to the theory of time travel, preventing the rise of Skynet in this time period will establish a new primary timeline that will guarantee victory for the Resistance in the pre-existing future and-"
John held up a hand. "Yeah, yeah, I get that. Cameron told me all about that stuff. But I'm starting to think my future self had more in mind than just winning the war."
Marcus cocked his head. "Explain."
"All this time people have been saying over and over how everything depends on me. Not just the outcome of the war, but the future of Humanity. How it's so important that everyone believes in me. Derek said the same thing to me too. That humanity rises and falls on my shoulders."
Jesse nodded. "And it does."
"But don't you see? It shouldn't have to be that way."
"One man holding everyone else's fate in his hands. Everyone rising and falling on his shoulders. It shouldn't have to be like that."
"Maybe not," said Jesse curtly, "but it is what it is. At least where I come from, anyway."
"Unless we do something about it here." John's mind churned. Pieces of a large and complicated puzzle were suddenly starting to come together. "I'm starting to think my future self saw exactly what you saw, Jesse. Feared what you feared. That people would turn against each other once Skynet was gone. That even he wouldn't be able to hold everyone together. I think that's the real reason why he wants us to stop Judgment Day."
"Real reason?" asked Kara.
"Cameron told me that creating a new primary timeline would cause all previous timelines to follow a similar path. I didn't really understand at first, but now I do." John's mind, once clogged with confusion, was now firing on all cylinders. "This isn't about winning the war. The Future Me was already doing that in his world. This is about having a future where John Connor isn't the only thing standing between humanity and total annihilation. That's what this is all about. That's why we have to stop Judgment Day. If we can prevent it here, we won't just be saving this world. We'll be giving that other world - the other future - a chance to rebuild itself after the war. To make it like Judgment Day never happened there... just like it never happened here."
Stunned, Kara turned to Marcus. "Is that... true?"
Marcus looked down for a few seconds. "I cannot say for certain," he stated, cocking his head back up. "However, given the fact that the war had turned in the Resistance's favor when this operation was devised, it is possible that General Connor had alternative objectives beyond ensuring Skynet's final defeat."
"It's more than just a possibility," John insisted. "It's the truth. I know it is."
"Anyway," interjected Sarah, "does it really matter what his intentions were? We're here, right now. We have a chance to make things right. To put an end to this insanity once and for all."
"And how exactly will that work out?" Jesse asked. "Even if we succeed, how do we know that another Skynet won't just rise up? How do we know we're not just delaying the inevitable?"
"We don't," John admitted. "But we have to try."
"We have to survive," Jesse argued vehemently. "You have to survive."
"Sometimes it's not enough to survive," Kara interjected. "You have to deserve to survive."
Confused, Jesse turned to Kara. "Excuse me?"
"We could keep our heads down and do nothing while the world goes to Hell," said Kara. "But what sort of people would that make us? A bunch of frakkin' losers, that's who."
"She's right," agreed John. "Who would follow me if they knew that I hid and let others die? That I had had a chance to stop the war, but didn't take it? That I didn't even try. I wouldn't want to follow me. Would you?"
Taken aback, Jesse stammered, "I...I... I don't know, John."
"Then let me ask you this: What would Derek do? If he were standing right here, right now, what would he say to you? What would he want you to do? You said you came here to redeem yourself to him, right?"
Bitter regret came over Jesse's face. "Yeah, well... Can't do that anymore, can I?" she muttered, looking away.
"Maybe not. But you can still honor his memory. Do what he would do. Fight with us. I know it's a long-shot, but that wouldn't have stopped him, would it?"
Jesse's shoulders sank. "No... no, it wouldn't."
"Then don't let it stop you," John urged. "You wanted a chance to make things right. This is it." He took a step forward, looking her squarely in the eyes. "Do it," he intoned. "Do it for the man you loved. The man who loved you."
Jesse let out a groan of frustration and threw her arms up in the air. "Damn you, John Connor. You're trying to get into my head, aren't you?"
A smirk flickered across his face. "Is it working?"
Jesse folded her arms across her chest defiantly. "Why do you really want to go to Zeira Corp?" she asked. "Is this actually about saving the world and stopping Judgment Day? Or is this about saving her?"
"This is about saving all of us," John replied. "Or at least trying to. It's what humans are supposed to do. Try." He held out his hand. "So... will you join us?"
Jesse looked down at the open hand being offered to her. Arms still folded across her chest, she closed her eyes and inhaled deeply. John watched her carefully, uncertain of how this would turn out. He had made his final pitch. Now all he could do was hope he'd made at least some sort of impression.
Finally, after what seemed like forever, Jesse exhaled and re-opened her eyes; her arms dropped to her side in surrender.
"All right, I'm in."
She shook his hand. It was a brief, very awkward handshake, but sincere enough for John.
He smiled. "You're doing the right thing, Jesse."
She huffed. "Wonderful... Doubt I'll live long enough to appreciate it..."
John turned to the others. "Let's get to Zeira Corp and finish this."
"Good idea," said Sarah curtly. "We've spent enough time talking."
"One final question, Thrace..." said Marcus. "You mentioned that General Sloan had an accomplice. Someone he was taking orders from. Who was it?"
Kara smiled weakly.
"That..." she said slowly, "...is another story entirely."
November 6, 2027 - Seattle Sector
Liberty Base, United States-In-Exile Primary Headquarters
General Ashdown glared menacingly at John Connor. "What exactly are you trying to do here, Connor? Are you threatening me?"
Keeping calm and composed, Connor shook his head. "I'm just stating the facts, Hugh: Mainly that you and General Sloan conspired to commit espionage against the Resistance. To be more precise, you asked Sloan to dig up some dirt on me."
"So what if I did?" challenged Ashdown. "How many times have you done the same to me?"
"If I have done it, it was done without anyone getting kidnapped and tortured. Or framed. Or murdered, for that matter."
Ashdown scoffed. "As if you can prove that I had anything to do with that. As far as I'm concerned, whatever Sloan did, he did it on his own. Certainly not with my knowledge or assistance." He started to turn away. "Now, if we're done with these childish games, I have some much more important issues that need taking care of-"
"Uh uh, not so fast, General." Connor pulled a recording device from his coat pocket. "This was recovered from General Sloan's office shortly after his arrest. I think you'll find what's on it very interesting..."
He switched the recorder on.
"Sir, I think I may have a solution."
"You can access the TOK-715's primary memory banks after all?"
Connor suppressed the urge to smile as Ashdown turned back around, his eyes widening in shock.
The recording continued.
"I'm afraid not. Mr. Wisher continues to insist that it's impossible, even for him."
"He could be lying."
"My operatives say he's most likely telling the truth. In any case, I don't think we should risk inflicting any permanent damage to the TOK-715. We don't want to leave anything behind that might arouse Connor's suspicions."
"I don't want excuses, Sloan. I want leverage on Connor! I want something I can use to put that arrogant son of a bitch in his place!"
"I'm aware of that, sir. And as I said, I have a solution. It's a contingency plan I've been thinking of for a while. If we can't find any leverage, then we can manufacture some."
"I have everything and everyone I need to create a... compromising scenario. Something that Connor wouldn't want to be made public."
"Just what the hell are you planning to do, Benedict?"
"It's best that you not know the full details, sir."
"...I suppose not. All right, fine. But whatever you're gonna do, I don't want any of it being traced back to me. Is that clear, Sloan?"
"Of course, sir."
Connor stopped the recording. "My, my, my," he remarked. "Looks like Sloan had another contingency plan in mind, in case he was caught. Ironic, isn't it? At the same time he was looking for dirt on me, he was also digging up dirt on you. I'm surprised you never considered that, Hugh."
A stupefied General Ashdown just stared ahead, his expression resembling that of a bass mounted on a fishing trophy.
"Let's start from the beginning, shall we?" Connor said. "Back in January, Sloan had a pair of reprogrammed Triple-Eights abduct several of my men - Sergeant Wisher amongst them - knowing full well that I would send Cameron to search for them, and that Wisher could be forced to reprogram her. After I dispatched Cameron to the LA Sector, Sloan had his Triple-Eights kidnap her too. At first, he just wanted to gain access to her CPU so that he could find out all my dirty little secrets. But, when he discovered he couldn't do that, he decided to - in his own words - manufacture something. He forced Wisher to reprogram Cameron to torture his friends in a phony interrogation, while a T-600 of his bore witness to the whole spectacle. All of this occurred with your approval.
"Afterwards, Wisher was forced to erase Cameron's memories of what she had done, and replace them with false ones. Sloan then had the prisoners released so that they would return to the Resistance and report what had happened. He knew that when I had Cameron's memories analyzed and found nothing, I would dismiss the allegations and do nothing about it. Sloan then destroyed the machines he used in the kidnappings, but not before extracting the CPU from the T-600. He then had his own techs manipulate its data to make it appear as if Cameron had been acting on her own. The result was a damning video that would not only turn Cameron into Public Enemy Number One, but make me look like I'd covered up her supposed crimes... which, in a way, I did. Again - all of this was done with your tacit approval.
"But then things went wrong. Somehow, DEIMOS Agent Kane got his hands on the T-600's chip. Obviously Sloan couldn't let me see what was on it. So, Sloan hired Mr. Gareth and his men to track Kane down to the sewers and kill him. Apparently, Sloan didn't trust Gareth enough to retrieve the stolen chip because once Kane was dead, Sloan went to the sewers to personally collect the chip... except I got to it first. That, of course, was a major inconvenience for you..."
He clicked the recorder on again.
"What the hell is happening, Sloan? How did Connor get his hands on that CPU? I thought you said the situation was under control."
"I'm sorry, sir. Connor, Colonel Thrace, and the TOK-715 got to the CPU before I did. I had no idea they were even in the area."
"You... imbecile! Once Connor sees the little horror show on that chip, he'll go to the ends of the world to find out who's responsible."
"There's no need to panic, sir. He can't trace the CPU back to us. And we still have the backup data."
"Which is completely useless now that we no longer have a plausible explanation for how we got that data in the first place. We say anything about what's on that chip, Connor will put two and two together in heartbeat and turn the tables on us."
"Which is why I suggest forgoing negotiations... and dropping the hammer, so to be speak."
"Dropping the hamm- You-you can't be serious! That chip was never meant to see the light of day. It was only ever intended to be used as leverage. Something to keep Connor in line."
"As you already pointed out, sir, that's no longer possible now that Connor has the chip. But it won't do him any good if everyone else sees what happened to their comrades in that basement. They'll be too angry - not just with the machine, but also its master."
"Are you insane, Sloan? There'll be chaos! Dissent! Riots! The entire war effort could be jeopardized!"
"Only temporarily. And during that time, Connor will be on the defensive. Not only will he be unable to launch any sort of investigation that might lead to us, but if sufficient unrest is stirred within the ranks, he might even be convinced to step down. Once he's out of the way, you'll be free to step in and take control of the situation... along with the Resistance itself."
"Hmph! You say that as if it were a walk in the park. What makes you think Connor will just roll over? Or that his people will let me walk in and take over?"
"Connor will always do what he thinks is in everyone's best interest. If he has to resign to keep things from falling apart, he'll do it. With him gone, the Resistance will be looking for a strong leader. Someone willing to do whatever it takes to win this war. Rest assured, they'll be quick to see that you're the right man for the job."
"What about Connor's hardcore devotees in Tech Com? They'll never accept me."
"Maybe not. But without Connor to lead them, they'll simply fall apart."
"I don't know about this, Benedict..."
"Haven't you wanted to bring the Resistance under your heel for years? Haven't you always wanted to see Connor removed from the picture?"
"Of course, I have! I just didn't think-"
"Now is your chance, sir. To get everything you wanted. You should take it. Now. An opportunity like this may never happen again."
"Hmmmm... Well, I suppose you have a point there... All right, all right. Do it. But God help you if somehow this is ever traced back to me."
"I assure you, sir, it won't be."
Connor paused the recorder again. He looked up at Ashdown. "You got anything to add, Hugh?"
Ashdown gave a derisive snort - a vain attempt to appear unworried. "You can't prove that was me. That-that could be a machine impersonating me."
"I'm sure a detailed forensic analysis will clear up any issue on that. And even if it doesn't, there's still Sloan himself. He'd be more than happy to testify about your involvement in this conspiracy - especially if it means saving his own neck. But before we get into any of that, let's finish with this..." He gestured at the recorder. "One last item, Hugh. It's my favorite."
He switched the recorder back on for the third time.
"Well, Sloan? What did Colonel Thrace have to say about our offer?"
"She declined. Not very politely, I might add."
"A shame. But not surprising. We knew how fanatically loyal to Connor she is."
"Indeed. However, there's a more urgent matter you should be aware of. It concerns Mister Wisher."
"What about him?"
"He's dying from radiation poisoning."
"Are you sure?"
"The medical records from Hyena Bunker confirm it."
"Really? Well, I guess we won't have to worry about him talking."
"On the contrary, sir, this may be a problem. Dying men have a tendency to... confess their sins before they pass. If word gets out about his involvement, it might bring Connor out of hiding. Derail our efforts to consolidate control of the Resistance."
"Uh huh... I see. So, what exactly do you plan on doing about this?"
"Well, as it turns out, Wisher is currently the only patient in Hyena Bunker's infirmary. The infirmary itself has no security, with the possible exception of the Triple-Eight doctor-"
"Stop, stop, stop... Never mind. I'd rather not know what you're going to do. Just take care of this. As discretely as possible."
The recording stopped on its own. Connor put the recorder back in his coat, then folded his arms across his chest.
"Well, General?" he said, unable to stop himself from smirking.
Ashdown scowled. "What do you want, Connor?"
"Well... originally, when I first learned that Sloan had been acting on your orders, my gut instinct was to arrest you for conspiracy and treason. However, after having listened to those tapes, I can see now that Sloan played you like a fiddle. He used your fears and ambitions to worm his way into a position of power. Then, when he gets caught, he tries to worm his way out by pointing to you as the bigger fish." Connor gave a light chuckle. "I have to say, for all his faults, Sloan is a very clever, very cunning man. For a time, he even had me fooled."
"I said what do you want, Connor?" Ashdown growled.
Connor clasped his hands in front of him. "That depends on what you want, Hugh. There are three ways we can resolve this issue. First option - I go to the President and the Council with this evidence. You'll be recalled to New Washington to face a formal inquiry. There'll almost certainly be a trial, and if you're found guilty, you'll be disciplined, quite likely dishonorably discharged, possibly imprisoned... maybe even face a firing squad - though personally, I hope not."
He paused to judge Ashdown's reaction. The general was doing his best to put on a good face, but he could not conceal the fear in his eyes.
Connor continued, "Option two - you resign immediately. Come up with some reason - health or personal related. I don't care. You retire and hand over command of your troops to someone of my choosing."
Ashdown twitched, visibly uncomfortable. "And the third option?"
"The third option... We let go of our differences and work together. Not just to end this war, but to end it the right way."
"Is that it?" Ashdown asked, his tone rather condescending. "We just shake hands and be friends? Forget about everything that's ever happened?"
Connor's expression turned harsh. "Don't think I'm being sentimental or soft, Ashdown. Regardless of whether or not you actually knew what Sloan was planning to do, you're still responsible for his actions. You may have not been the architect of his schemes, but you enabled them. And because of you, people are dead. Good people.
"I know you never intended for things to end this way, but that doesn't excuse your actions. You made your choices, knowing full well what you were doing was wrong. And now it's time to face the consequences. The only reason I'm offering you a second chance is because I think there's still a bit of worth in you. That at the heart of things, you're a soldier. Someone who can help me win this fight."
Connor gestured towards the door. "I walk out of this room in thirty seconds. What say you, General? Do I walk out alone? Or do we leave together?"
Ashdown exhaled harshly like an aggravated bull. He stared down at the floor and tapped his foot several times. With a half-scowl, half-sigh of resignation, he looked back up.
"What exactly do you have in mind, Connor?"
Connor smiled approvingly. "I'm glad you asked..."
24 hours later...
Radio station Bravo-Tango-Nine
"...and, uh, that despite whatever differences we may have had, John Connor has my full support. He's undoubtedly the right man for this job. I and the whole of the American Armed Forces are committed to working with him to ending this war... and we're certainly glad to have him back with us. And now, I'd like to let General Connor himself have a few words."
Ashdown handed the radio microphone to Connor.
Connor nodded. "Thank you, Hugh."
Ashdown gave him a sour look but said nothing.
Connor tapped the microphone twice and cleared his throat. "This is John Connor," he announced. "If you are listening to this, you are the Resistance... I know it's been a while since you've heard from me like this. I also know that a lot has happened in the last few weeks. I'm sure you all have questions. I'm also sure many of you are frightened and confused. Even angry. And you're absolutely right to be...
"First of all, I want to thank General Ashdown and the USIE for helping maintain order during my absence, and for cooperating in the ongoing investigation into General Sloan's illicit activities. Second, I want to assure you all that there will be justice for the victims of the atrocities committed back in January. I have personally seen to it that the machines that abducted and tortured your fellow soldiers have been dealt with appropriately. As for the traitor Sloan, he and all those who assisted him in his deplorable crimes will face judgment.
"Now then... I'm sure at least some of you have heard rumors that I knew about what had happened to the men in that basement, and that I deliberately concealed this information. I feel that it is my duty to tell you all the truth: That I, in fact, knew about this incident and I did indeed choose to cover it up. It was a terrible mistake. At the time, I attempted to rationalize my actions. I told myself that it was for the greater good. That I could bury this incident quietly. And that by doing so, I would keep you safe. Instead, I put you all in danger. My short-sightedness nearly cost us everything we've fought for. And for that, I am truly sorry.
"I will not ask any of you for forgiveness. Nor will I ask that you continue following me. I have no right to do so. We are not machines. We cannot be programmed to follow. We choose what to do. Who to follow. That is our greatest power as human beings - our ability to choose. And should any of you choose not to follow me after today, I will not stop you, nor will I think any less of you.
"For those of you who do choose to continue following me, I cannot promise any sort of quick victory. There will be more fighting ahead. More hardships. And even after Skynet is destroyed, the battle will not be over. Even without their master to direct them, the remaining machines will continue to wage war upon us. They will never stop fighting. They cannot stop fighting. And neither can we. Not until the enemy has been completely and utterly destroyed.
"What I can promise is this: We will weather this storm. There will be a future for us. All of us. Not just those of us who fight - but also those who are incapable of fighting. The weak. The old. The newly born. The hundreds of thousands of souls still trapped in Skynet's detention facilities and labor camps. No one will be left behind. No one. Humans do not turn their backs on each other. I will not turn my back on you - any of you. And right now, I make the following pledge: By the time Skynet falls, every man, woman, and child in this world will be free. Free from the labor camps. Free from the machines. Free from despair. Free to choose their own fate. This is a promise... I intend to keep.
"This is John Connor. And if you are listening to this... you are Mankind's future."
Finished, he put the microphone back in its cradle and switched off the broadcasting equipment. He then turned to Ashdown.
"Thank you, General. Your cooperation has been most appreciated."
Ashdown grunted. "Are you seriously going to waste time and resources trying to liberate every single damn prison camp on this planet?"
"We, Hugh. We."
"Thought you said you didn't do sentiment."
"It's not sentiment. It's a promise," Connor asserted. "One that I'm keeping. Is there a problem with that, General?"
Ashdown gave Connor an icy glare, but shook his head. "No... Of course not. Like I said, you'll have my full support in this matter."
"You're too kind, Hugh." Connor paused. "Oh... one other thing. As you know, I have a tendency to keep secrets. Especially from you."
Ashdown rolled his eyes. "So I've noticed."
"I'll try to be as open as possible with you from now on. But if I choose not to share something with you, don't take it personally. Just assume I have a very good reason to do so. And don't go digging around in my backyard. Understand?"
"Right... got it," Ashdown muttered.
Connor straightened his trenchcoat out. "Take care of yourself, General."
"Yeah. You too, Connor." Ashdown shakily raised his hand and offered a salute.
Connor returned the gesture almost casually, then promptly turned and exited the room.
Outside the comm outpost, he found Colonel Kara Thrace waiting for him next to their APC. She nodded to him as he approached.
"Nice speech," she said.
He nodded back. "I'm glad you thought so."
"You're not actually just gonna let people leave, are you?"
"I only said I wouldn't stop them from leaving. Never said anything about others not stopping them. Like you..."
Kara sighed. "More asses for me to kick, huh? I guess I can live with that. What about Ashdown? How's he taking all of this?"
"Not too well, as expected," Connor replied, smirking slightly. "But he knows where he stands. I think we can count on him to behave from now on."
"Well, at least that's resolved. Unlike some other issues..." She exhaled sharply, staring at the side of their vehicle.
Connor sensed she was troubled. "Is there something on your mind, Colonel?"
She looked up at him. "I'm just wondering: How is it that Agent Brice's visit to Hyena just so happens to occur on the same day that Sloan's goons attack the base?"
"An unfortunate twist of fate," Connor said impassively.
"Or a fortunate one, depending on how you look at it. If Sloan hadn't sent those men, we'd never have gotten to the bottom of this mess. Right?" She glared at him suspiciously. "Am I right?"
Clever girl, Connor thought, maintaining his poker face. "If you're asking me if I knew someone was planning to kill Wisher on that particular day, the answer is no. I suspected that the conspirators would want to eliminate loose ends. But I didn't know how or when they would come for him."
He paused, then - against his better judgment - added, "However, when I learned about Sloan's visit, I did become suspicious. That's when I decided to send Agent Brice to Hyena."
Her jaw dropped. "You... you knew Sloan was involved?"
"I had my suspicions. But not a shred of proof. I had to let things play out for a while longer."
"You didn't even bother to warn me that Wisher might be in danger?"
"No," he admitted. "I didn't."
"Why the hell not?" she demanded, her face turning red with anger.
Connor sighed and closed his eyes. Maybe it was best that he come completely clean. After all, there wasn't much benefit in hiding the truth. Not anymore.
He opened his eyes and turned to face her.
"Because..." he said solemnly, "...because I knew your first instinct would be to do everything you could to protect him. I was worried that the conspirators already had eyes and ears inside Hyena itself. I couldn't risk tipping them off. You have to understand, Starbuck, it was essential that Hyena Bunker look like an easy target. Otherwise, the culprits would never reveal themselves and we'd never get to the bottom of this scheme."
Kara stared at him, her expression a mixture of disbelief and outrage. "Was that your real plan? Leave me vulnerable and unprepared so that Sloan wouldn't hesitate to attack?"
"That's... certainly one way of putting it."
"Really? Well, congratulations," Kara said sarcastically. "Your plan worked. Sure, Wisher's dead, and I was nearly killed, but other than that, everything went perfect."
Connor shook his head. "No, it didn't. The killers were never meant to make it inside the bunker. My people were supposed to have intercepted them long before that."
"So what happened?" Kara demanded. "How'd the bastards get through the net?"
"We were looking for machines. I had assumed that since the conspirators had used machines to do their dirty work before, they'd use them again. I never considered the possibility that they would send actual humans. A major miscalculation on my part, I admit."
Kara stared at him - not so much with anger, but with dismay. He knew what she was thinking: How could he - John Connor - have made such a monumental mistake like this?
He had no answer for that.
"You-you must have known there was a possibility that they'd get to Wisher," Kara said.
"I did. That's why I sent Agent Brice to Hyena."
"To protect him?"
"To get as much information out of him as possible before anyone could kill him. That, and to keep you out of the line of fire."
She blinked. "Me?"
"That's why I wanted Brice to question Wisher without you. I didn't want you getting caught in the crossfire should the bunker be breached. Just another thing that didn't go the way I planned." He gave her an earnest look. "I never meant to put you in harm's way, Starbuck. And I'm truly sorry for what happened to you."
For a moment, Kara stared at him in silent wonder, as if moved by his apology. But then she glared at him again. "But you're perfectly fine with Wisher getting killed, right?"
"No," said he flatly. "I'm not fine. I'm never fine with people dying..." He turned away and stared off into the distance. "When this war started, I had a small group of soldiers - much like you do. I valued their lives. I never sent them into battle if I thought they wouldn't all come out. But as the war spread across the world and the Resistance grew in numbers, I quickly realized that in order to win this war, I'd have to be willing to make sacrifices. I could no longer afford to treat my soldiers as family, but for what they were: Soldiers. Brave men and women I could send off to die for the greater good. It's why I need people like you."
Kara snorted. "Right, right, right... People who will gladly die for you."
"No, I mean people who can do what I can't. Why do you think I chose you to be my Special Operations commander?"
She stared at him, her anger slowly turning to bewilderment. "I don't understand."
"You think outside the box. You're a leader. You're someone people trust." Connor paused, and regarded her with a small smile. "But that's not why I chose you. There's something special about you, Starbuck. Something that's rare for a human these days. Something I saw in you the very day we met. You know what that is?"
Clearly lost, Kara Thrace just shook her head.
"Your greatest strength," said Connor, "is that you truly care about each and every single soldier that you lead into battle. You see your troops as more than tools. You see the value of their lives. You would die for any one of them. That's how much you care about them. But more importantly, you're capable of getting the job done without needlessly sacrificing lives. That is what makes you special, Starbuck. That's why I need people like you. I may be the one who leads Humanity in this war and keeps us alive, but its people like you who keep its soul intact. Who keep us from becoming the very things we're fighting against. Every day I send people into battle to die. And every day, you do everything you can to keep those people alive. Now do you understand what I mean?"
A look of comprehension came over Kara's face, only to dissolve into shame moments later.
"Well... I didn't do such a good job this time, did I?" she murmured, staring down at her own feet. "I couldn't protect Wisher. I couldn't save him. I-I let him die."
"I know," said Connor solemnly. "You were dealt a bad hand, Starbuck. We were both dealt bad hands. And we both did what we could. What we had to do."
"So what's the difference then, between us, and people like Ashdown and Sloan? Or Skynet, for that matter?"
"The difference is that we try, Starbuck. We try to do the right thing. It's all we can ever do."
She looked up at him, her expression one of grim understanding. "Yeah... I guess so."
He opened the door to the APC and gestured inside. "Let's go."
Kara, however, didn't move. "One more question, Connor: Where's Cameron? And Derek? And the others you sent on a 'long-term assignment.' Where did you really send them?"
Connor contemplated his response. Should he tell her the truth? He'd already told her a lot of things she shouldn't ought to have known. Why stop now?
"I could tell you," he said. "But once I open this particular door and let you in, you can't turn back."
Kara shrugged. "Since when have I ever turned back?"
Connor rubbed his chin. "I suppose you've got a point there..." Then, with a sly smile, he nodded. "We'll talk about it inside." Once again, he gestured at the APC. "After you, Colonel."
Kara gave him a nod of acknowledgment, then stepped inside the armored vehicle.
Gazing up over his shoulder, Connor spotted a tiny ray of sunlight piercing through the darkened sky. He took a single solitary moment to appreciate the sight, then moved to join his ever-loyal Spec Ops commander inside the APC. The door slammed shut behind him.
A minute later, the APC's engines rumbled to life and the vehicle began making its slow trek across the rubble-strewn wasteland of what had once been Mankind's kingdom.
Next chapter: It's the beginning of the end.
A/N: Whew! That was a LONG chapter. Basically it went through a TON of rewrites. But finally it's done. Future chapters will be MUCH shorter. And hopefully out a LOT quicker.