Well, this project took longer than I thought when I started it, due to real life and all its intrusions, but here we are at the end. I hope everyone has enjoyed the ride - if you have, I'd love it if you left a review for this chapter, even if you haven't been reviewing all along. The story is complete, as my intention was always to tell Blair and Marcus' story, and not attempt a recounting of the entirety of the Future War. Thank you to everyone for reading, and for all your lovely reviews. (Oh, and also thank you to Atticus Ross for writing the amazing soundtrack to The Book of Eli, which is what I listened to while writing the last few chapters of this story.)
The Humvee's headlights were two tiny spots of light in a sea of black. Once again Blair circled back, making sure that she never lost visual contact with the vehicle. Even with the F-15 choked back to an almost unbearable 150 miles per hour, she had to keep constantly looping, or she'd overshoot the transport's current location. From time to time she found her foot pushing against the floor of the cockpit, as if subconsciously willing Marcus to go a little heavier on the gas. Stupid, really — the road was in terrible condition, and Dyson had a painful leg fracture. She estimated that the Humvee was doing forty-five, maybe fifty miles an hour, which was still pretty good. It was unrealistic to expect much more than that.
All around her the air was clear, hard and black the way only deserts skies could truly be. No sign of any H-Ks — no sign of anyone at all, except those two determined little lights that continued to head ever westward. She should be relieved. After all, she had only the one Sidewinder left if another Hunter-Killer decided to show its face. She should be glad that they apparently faced no further Skynet intrusions as they made their way back to the Resistance base.
Why, then, did she feel so uneasy, as if haunted by the notion that she'd missed something truly important?
Maybe it was just the memory of those dead soldiers back at Elysium. She'd seen so much death and destruction for most of her life that she knew it really shouldn't get to her anymore, but there was something about those sprawled figures, something about the helpless shapes they'd made against the shining linoleum floors, that got her right in the gut. It was one thing to go down in an open fight, gun still in your hands, and something else altogether to be killed where you stood by something against which you had no defense.
She knew she shouldn't let it get to her. Hell, Dyson seemed to have handled the loss of the base and his compatriots better than she was managing right now. Then again, he was in so much pain and so maxed out on Vicodin it was probably a miracle he could remember his own name. No doubt the grieving process would kick in later.
At least they weren't coming back completely empty-handed, although a motley assortment of pilfered medical supplies wasn't quite the same as a contingent of fighter jets, Humvees, and ground troops. Marcus hadn't been able to understand why the machines didn't level the place completely, but he hadn't seen the untouched hospitals and pharmaceutical factories during the days and weeks after Judgment Day. Skynet only struck out against the machines man could use to continue the fight. The mechanisms in place to keep humans healthy didn't matter to the machines. And anyway, those hospitals and factories were abandoned damn quick, just as soon as people figured out the last place they wanted to be was any spot where the machines thought humans might congregate. Blair supposed she should be thankful for that; if Skynet had taken out the hospitals and the medical centers, it would have been even harder to find medical supplies than it already was.
Once again she circled back, reassured herself with the sight of the Humvee's headlights bobbing along Highway 58. As much as she loved flying the Strike Eagle, she found herself wishing she could be down there with Marcus, trading barbs, or maybe just sharing a companionable silence. The front seat of a Humvee definitely wasn't designed for necking, so she'd have had to hold off on that until they got back to base, but at least she would have been with him.
Soon, she told herself, and checked her instruments one more time. The sky was empty; not even a flock of birds showed on the scanners. Even though the trip seemed interminable right now, if nothing stopped them, they'd be home in less than an hour.
Well, she had a bottle of wine and a few blankets she'd been saving for a special occasion, and she couldn't think of anything more special than being with Marcus for the first time.
Marcus wasn't sure whether Dyson was passed out or just asleep. He supposed it didn't matter much. Either way, the scientist's current comatose state had probably made the return trip to the Resistance base a lot easier.
The Humvee turned down the narrow road that led to the almond farm. Almost there. A few minutes ago, he'd seen Blair's F-15 streak by overhead, angling downward to make its approach. Just a few minutes more, and then he could turn Dyson over to Kate Connor and sneak off with Blair. They had unfinished business, and that kiss she'd given him — had it only been an hour ago? — told him she was just as eager to finish that business as he was.
A pair of Resistance soldiers waited at the open gate to the farm. At first Marcus wondered why the gate stood open, and then he noticed the Strike Eagle off to one side, with Blair already standing next to it. The soldiers waved him in, and he bounced over the ruts and pulled to a stop just a few feet from Blair. She strode up to him.
"Keep going," she said. Her tone was all business, but a certain glint in her eyes told him that she was probably thinking of the quickest way to off-load Dyson. "Pull as close to the medical tent as you can. No point in making Dyson walk any farther than he has to."
"Got it." Marcus eased his way farther into the camp, moving slowly so people could get out of the way. Not that there was a lot of activity at this hour; even the Elysium troops who had been milling around like ants earlier seemed to have retired for the night.
Blair must have radioed ahead; he saw Kate Connor waiting at the entrance to the medical tent, and, to his surprise, John Connor stood next to her. He'd abandoned the wheelchair for his crutches. Marcus hoped that the Resistance leader had at least managed a cat nap while waiting for word from Elysium, but he somehow doubted it. With a little shake of the head, he parked the Humvee and slid out of the driver's seat, just as two of Kate's assistants stepped forward with a stretcher. Dyson roused himself just enough to lift himself from the passenger seat and down to the two waiting med techs. They hoisted the stretcher and then disappeared inside the tent, with Kate Connor just a pace or two behind.
"Blair told us about Dyson," Connor said. "But I wanted to hear what he had to say, so I thought I could debrief him while Kate worked on his leg."
"You can try," Marcus replied, not bothering to keep the skepticism out of his tone. "He's pretty out of it." He gave the other man a quick glance. For some reason, Connor looked even grimmer than usual. The hard lines around his mouth seemed deeper than usual, although that could have just been pain and exhaustion. "You get anything out of Stark?"
"Nothing good." And he turned and went inside the tent.
What was that about? Answers would have to wait, though. Since Connor hadn't specifically requested that he stay outside, Marcus slipped into the tent as well. Not that he had any particular interest in seeing Kate Connor set Dyson's broken leg — his brother Neil had shattered his femur once in an ATV accident, and in Marcus' mind that was enough compound fractures for one lifetime — but he wanted to hear what the hell Dyson had been thinking in the first place, to go tearing off to Elysium like that, as well as whether he'd spotted anything unusual before Blair and Marcus had showed up.
They'd transferred Dyson from the stretcher to a gurney, and Kate Connor had just begun to slice away the ruined flight suit to fully expose the lower length of his right leg. The man's face was ashy, rimed with sweat. Marcus wondered whether she'd given him a shot, or whether he was still refusing any anesthetics.
Suddenly, a small, cold hand slid into his, and he looked down to see Blair standing next to him. She flashed him a quick grin, but didn't say anything. That was fine. Enough to know that she was there at his side. He squeezed her fingers, very gently, and then redirected his attention to the operating table.
"You could've gotten yourself killed," Connor said then. He stood just to Kate's right, far enough away so he wouldn't interfere with what she was doing, but close enough that he didn't have to raise his voice.
Dyson's eyes remained shut. Sweat trickled down from one temple to disappear into his ear. Marcus twitched involuntarily. That must tickle. He found himself wondering if one of the med techs was going to wipe the sweat away.
Connor appeared unmoved by the scientist's current discomfort. He went on, in the same hard, flat tones, "Not to mention costing us an F-15 we couldn't afford to lose."
Next to him, Kate Connor worked silently as she finished cutting away the flight suit and then began to sponge the blood off Dyson's injured leg. Marcus tried to keep from wincing as he caught a clearer view of the shattered bone sticking up from the wound. But then he could have sworn he saw —
He blinked, and shook his head, even as Kate exclaimed, "No — no!"
The bone fragments fell away, revealing the unmistakable gleam of metal. Dyson sat up, dark eyes flashing red. And Marcus didn't stop to think, didn't stop for anything, but only wrenched his hand from Blair's and bolted forward.
The others seemed slower to react, but of course none of them had been modified by a bunch of mad scientists to outperform any puny human reflexes. He pushed past Kate Connor, knocking her into her husband, who of course must have been Dyson's target all along. They both went down, Connor's crutches giving way beneath the unexpected assault. And then Marcus slammed into Dyson, the collision sending them to the ground in a messy heap.
Stark had been strong, and Dyson was just as powerful. The other cyborg drove a knee up into the small of Marcus' back, and an explosion of agony seared its way up his spine. The room wavered.
No good. Mouthing curses he didn't have the wind to say out loud, Marcus drove his fist into Dyson's jaw. As his — its — head snapped back, Marcus fumbled for his gun. He didn't pretend to be as practiced a machine-killer as the other Resistance fighters, but he'd overheard enough to know that the only way to stop one once and for all was to send a bullet deep into its cybernetic brain, destroying the chip that controlled it.
Shouts and cries filtered to his ears, and he realized the other people in the medical tent had begun to converge on Dyson as well. Someone shot at the cyborg, striking it in the arm. Marcus hoped they'd at least attempted not to hit him when they took the shot. Then again, there were a lot of people who probably wouldn't consider him any great loss.
The gun pulled free of its holster. Dyson, apparently not slowed down at all by the bullet in his arm, reached up to take Marcus by the throat. Steely fingers clenched, shutting down his air passages. No one had told Marcus whether or not his new cyborg body could be killed through asphyxiation, and he knew he didn't want to find out.
A red haze hovered at the edges of his vision. He brought the Beretta up against Dyson's temple and fired.
The cyborg let go of his throat just long enough for Marcus to fire again, and again. He didn't know whether that was enough, but Dyson wasn't moving. Just to be sure, Marcus slid off its limp body and turned it over, then fired into the back of its head until the clip was empty.
The gunshots continued to echo in his ears. Someone touched his shoulder, and he whirled, only to see Blair standing behind him, her Glock out and pointed at Dyson's prone form.
"I think you got him, Tex," she said.
Marcus nodded, and, wincing a little, staggered to his feet. On the other side of the gurney he could see the two shaken med techs helping John Connor stand up as well. The Resistance leader's face had gone dead white, but as he gazed across the tent at Marcus, an incongruous smile pulled at his mouth.
"Looks like we just found our third infiltrator."
For some reason, Blair couldn't keep her hands from shaking, so she wrapped them around her mug of coffee — real coffee from the stores Elysium had sent over — and tried without much success to keep from staring at Marcus. Bruise marks stood out, livid and blue black, against his throat. But he was alive.
…Dyson never had been, apparently. At least, not the Dyson they'd brought back with them from Elysium.
Seeming to understand that everyone was too jangled and keyed-up to retire for the night, Connor had asked Blair and Marcus, as well as Barnes and some of his other lieutenants, to come back to the command tent for a debriefing. Once there, he explained that the technicians had been able to glean from Stark's chip that he had been one of three infiltrator units Serena Kogan's crew had designed and created.
"Marcus was the prototype, far as we can tell," Connor said. He didn't have coffee, but instead a glass of water, from which he took frequent sips. That taut look was back on Kate's face, the one that said she knew her husband walked the knife edge of collapse, but she appeared willing to sit at his side and allow him to do this, at least until she deemed it medically unsafe.
Next to Blair, Marcus shifted. She knew he hated being discussed in such terms. Human beings, after all, weren't prototypes. Any words of reassurance would have to wait until later, though.
"We'll never know exactly what happened, why Marcus was left in an abandoned facility. Stark had been at Elysium from before Judgment Day, and Dyson…" He paused, and drank some more water.
"That's what I don't understand," Marcus said. "If Dyson was a cyborg, why didn't he kill you as soon as Stark failed? No one would have seen that coming."
"That Dyson wasn't a cyborg."
Blair shot a quick sideways glance at Marcus, who gave the smallest of shrugs. "What?"
Connor gave them both a grim smile. "I'm pretty sure the Dyson you first met at Elysium, the one who came back here with the troops, was the real Dyson. The cyborg would have been waiting somewhere at Elysium, in hiding until the time was right."
"A sleeper…" Blair breathed. She'd heard rumors of such things, of machines programmed to lie in wait for months or even years, but she'd never encountered one until now.
Marcus appeared unconvinced. "I don't get it. We were with Dyson the whole time. When would the machine have been able to make the swap?"
"No, we weren't," Blair replied. Maybe it was the caffeine coursing through her veins and sharpening her brain, but a clearer picture was beginning to emerge. "We saw Dyson's F-15 get shot down, but we never actually saw him eject, did we? We found someone who looked like Dyson on the ground, wrapped in a parachute."
"Oh," said Marcus. Then, "Oh."
"Exactly," Connor agreed. "Stark must have sent some sort of signal before he was completely out of commission, and the sleeper Dyson gassed the base and blew up the critical areas. The real Dyson knew what the radio silence meant and went running back — just as they expected he would." Another one of those grim smiles quirked at the edges of his mouth. "Guess we humans are more predictable than we'd like to believe."
Not a thought Blair really wanted to entertain, not when it meant the machines could anticipate humans' movements with uncanny accuracy. But she told herself John Connor wasn't Daniel Dyson. Connor had managed to keep them safe for years. Now she knew it was partly because he could be capricious, difficult to pin down.
"What about the bones?" she asked. "We saw the goddamn bone sticking out of his leg!"
Kate Connor spoke then. "Advanced camouflage. We saw that in Stark's extremities as well once we continued with the autopsy, although not to the degree utilized in Dyson. Bone tissue grown and molded around the endoskeleton. It could shatter and break like normal bones — as you saw. Pretty good subterfuge, when you think about it."
Blair didn't want to think about it, didn't want to think how close she and Marcus had come to getting John Connor killed by bringing that thing back to base. And she wanted to think even less about how the machines seemed to be coopting human elements bit by bit. At the rate they were going, when would the line between man and machine become completely blurred?
"Are there any more?" Marcus asked abruptly.
Connor didn't bother to ask him what he meant. "From the information we gathered, it seems there were three infiltrators built, and now all three are accounted for. Not to say that Skynet didn't continue with the program after Stark was inserted at Elysium, but we think that's it."
"Good," said Marcus. He pushed back his seat, and put one hand to his throat. "Because I'm tired of fighting advanced versions of myself." With a scowl, he stood, almost knocking over his chair in the process, and then stalked from the tent.
Somehow, Blair couldn't quite meet John Connor's eyes. "I'd better go check on him," she said quickly, and got up from her seat as well. Let Connor — and the rest of them — think what they wanted. Right now she only wanted to be with Marcus, to reassure him that she didn't think he was a prototype, or an infiltrator…or a machine. Hell, no one had even thanked him for saving John Connor's life again. Pretty shabby treatment, if you asked her. Marcus should be judged by his deeds, not by the metal skeleton beneath his skin.
The camp was a little livelier than it should be for such a late hour. Not surprising, considering the skirmish in the medical tent. Blair wove her way through the crowds, looking for Marcus' tall form. She didn't see any signs of him. Then she paused to consider, and smiled and nodded.
She had a pretty good idea where she could find him.
A layer of high cirrus clouds coated the sky, so the moon, now a few degrees past its zenith, wasn't as bright as it had been the last time he stood here. Was that only a few hours ago? Time didn't seem to make much sense anymore. It jiggered and zigzagged and didn't want to follow a straight line. Just like him, he supposed. He'd never been very good about staying inside the lines.
"I'm glad the moon is still up."
He turned then and saw Blair paused on the path a few feet away from him. She held a beat-up duffel bag that hung loosely from one hand. The stream flashed quicksilver just behind her. Nonplussed, he only stared back at her.
"It's pretty, don't you think?" She knelt and trailed the fingers of her free hand in the water; little droplets splashed up, flickering diamonds in the moonlight.
"I guess so."
She smiled at him, just as bright and lovely as the shimmering water. A woman wouldn't smile like that at a machine, would she?
"By the way," she added, after straightening and taking a few steps toward him. "Thank you."
"Saving John Connor. Of course you deserve a lot more than just a 'thank you,' but I thought we should at least start there."
Was that why she had followed him here, out of some sense of obligation? "You would have done the same. I just moved faster, that's all."
"That's all," she repeated. "I'd say it was a bit more than that, and I'm sorry no one else saw fit to thank you for it."
"It's no — " he began, and she interrupted,
"Don't you dare say it's no big deal." Now she looked more than a little upset; her eyebrows creased, and she planted her hands on her hips as she stared up at him.
He didn't know what to say, didn't know how to confront her righteous anger. So he glanced down at the duffel she held and asked, "What's in the bag?"
Almost as quickly as it had come, the frown erased itself from her brow, and she sent a grin in his direction that somehow made him forget the cold night air. "Supplies."
With one hand she tugged at the zipper of the duffel, then pulled out a bottle. "It's not champagne, but it's still a pretty damn good '97 pinot noir."
That was about the last thing he had been expecting. Marcus stared at Blair for a few seconds, then down at the bottle of wine, then back up at her. "Where the hell did you get that?"
"Won it off some dumb-ass who didn't believe a woman could beat him at Texas Hold 'Em." Her dark eyes glinted with laughter, echoes of the moonlit flashes of the creek behind her.
"You're a talented woman, aren't you?"
She shrugged, but her mouth curved a little. "Let me show you just how talented."
The old farmhouse had been left mostly alone. Marcus guessed that Connor's people had done a sweep for squatters or anything else that might have taken up residence in the abandoned structure, but, despite the dust and a general air of neglect, it probably didn't look that different from the way it had when people still lived here. Some of the furniture was gone — broken up for firewood, most likely — but a faded Persian rug still covered the living room floor, and plain muslin curtains hung at the windows.
By some unspoken agreement they settled here on the rug, with the blankets Blair carried in her duffel bag spread out on the floor. She'd brought a couple of collapsible plastic drinking cups with her as well, and Marcus poured an equal measure into each one before he handed Blair her drink.
"So what are we celebrating?" he asked.
"You," she replied.
"Just go with it. Cheers."
She held up her cup, so he raised his as well and bumped it awkwardly against hers.
"Sorry it's not Waterford," she said.
He hadn't never drunk out of a real crystal glasses, so he wasn't regretting any Waterford now. Hell, the people he'd hung with had thought they were being classy when they drank out of beer bottles instead of cans.
Since he'd never been a wine drinker, he didn't have much context for what he tasted now, but something about it seemed at home here, as if it had been grown on hillsides not unlike the ones surrounding the almond farm. It tasted of fruit long gone, and rich soil, and the warmth of a sun the world had lost forever.
For some reason his throat grew tight, and he had a hard time swallowing the mouthful of wine. Must've been the damage cyborg-Dyson had inflicted earlier.
He looked up from the plastic cup to see Blair watching him, her face intent and still, and somehow more beautiful than it had ever been, as if the filtered moonlight and the one small crank-operated lantern she'd brought had somehow combined to highlight unexpected planes and shadows in her features. It was almost the face of a statue, or something carved in a temple wall.
"You all right, Marcus?" she asked.
For some reason he couldn't take another sip of the wine. He hesitated, not wanting her to hear the thickness in his throat, or see the sting of crazy tears that touched his eyes. He really must be losing it.
Then she reached over to him and took the cup from his hand, set it on a rickety little plant stand that had probably survived because it didn't have enough wood to be worth breaking up. And her mouth was on his, tasting of wine, and her hair, impossibly soft, tumbled across his cheek. Somehow they were lying on the blanket, limbs entwined, as he held her close to him, every nerve ending seeming to sense her heat, the lithe strength of her body. Her fingers worked at the zipper of his flight suit, and then it was open, and she pulled it away from him, tugged at the T-shirt he wore underneath.
Of course there was no heat in the farmhouse, and he should have been cold now that his torso was bare, but not now, not when Blair's touch had awakened a heat in him he hadn't felt since he arrived in the world of Judgment Day. He had to feel her as well, and fumbled with the zipper of her own suit. She laughed a little, a low chuckle that sounded almost like a purr, and yanked at the zipper, wriggling out of the flight suit so she lay against him wearing only a tank top. But soon that was gone, and it was only bare skin to bare skin, the glory of her breasts under his hands, the taut muscles of her legs wrapping around his.
He had to taste her, taste every inch of her. She buried her fingers in his short-cropped hair and groaned, pressing to him, opening herself to his tongue. And he waited until she bucked up against him, and then slid into her, letting out a moan of his own as her heat surrounded him, welcoming him, letting him become one with her.
The white-hot explosion might as well have been a nuclear bomb. He somehow managed to keep from collapsing against her, and instead rolled to one side as he lay against the scratchy Army-issue blankets, his breath coming in harsh gasps.
Blair was the first to move. After a minute or so, she sat up, quite calmly retrieved her tank top and underwear, and wriggled back into it. Then she reached for their abandoned cups of wine and picked them up.
"You ready for a drink now?"
Marcus wasn't sure he could do much of anything except lie there and pant like a man who'd just finished an Iron Man competition, but after a few more seconds he sat up, grabbed his own underwear, and nodded. Turned out he was pretty thirsty.
Without comment, she handed him his cup, and he drank deeply, this time enjoying the fruit and the heat as it washed over his tongue and down his throat. He noticed that Blair drank slowly, savoring each sip, her eyes half shut. Or maybe that was just the aftermath of their little interlude. He wondered where she'd ever learned to enjoy wine — after all, she'd been just a high school kid when the bombs dropped.
Then again, he was discovering wine didn't have to be an acquired taste. He sure was enjoying this one. Or maybe it was just who he happened to be sharing it with.
When she finally did speak, her words were about the last thing he expected. "What do you miss the most?"
"Huh?" It could have been the wine, or just the effects of being with Blair, but either way his brain didn't seem to be working as fast as it normally did.
"From before. What do you miss the most?"
He lowered his cup and watched her for a few seconds. She had her knees drawn up to her chest, with her arms wrapped around them and her fingers loosely laced around each other with the wine cup held in between. In that position, her legs looked impossibly long. He still couldn't quite comprehend that a woman like her would want to be with him, either the larcenous Marcus of the old days, or the new Serena Kogan–improved version with his metal skeleton and jury-rigged brain. But she was here, looking at him quite seriously, her face grave and quiet and heartbreakingly beautiful. It was not the face of a woman who regretted anything she had done.
With no hesitation, he said, "I don't miss anything."
Her eyes widened, unbelieving.
"Back then, I had nothing. I was nothing." He paused, wishing he weren't the type who always fumbled over his words whenever he had something important to say. "But here — now — I have you. So how I could I want anything else?"
Still she was silent for a long moment, one in which he started to think that maybe he'd just made an idiot of himself, that she really didn't think anything of him except a quick lay, something new and exotic. Then she set down her wine and and moved toward him, and her arms went around him as she kissed him, again and again, until the world was nothing but her, nothing but Blair, forever and amen.
Much later, as she slept in his arms, he sat and watched a sullen sun rise through the living room's east-facing windows. The sun was red, bloody as the war that had cost the lives of so many. Maybe he was crazy for thinking this was better, for thinking he had more of a chance here than he ever had in his old life. But then he glanced down at the woman he held, watched the rising sun bring out sparks of copper and bronze in her dark hair, and knew this was the place he was meant to be.
In leaving the only world he had ever known, Marcus Wright had come home.