Hope

Chapter 09: The Apple Never Falls Far

TUNNEL SECTION B12

LOS ANGELES (circa 2026)

It was the 32nd day of the Resistance's occupation of this tunnel branch and all was not well. Within a week of settling, the tunnels had become flooded with refugees from an attack on two major bunkers nearby. Women and children littered every corner of every corridor and every room. They were like the very vermin that they so desperately ate. Or so Cameron thought.

Walking down one such corridor she couldn't help but find a dozen reasons why allowing civilians to take refuge here was a tactical error. The children ran rampant without supervision whilst the mothers either wept in dark corners or carried out sexual favours for scraps of food and supplies. The area had become a haven for lawless depravity and self-serving degradation.

Passing a man and a women engaging in blatant intercourse against the wall, Cameron wondered if sterilising the tunnels would be an acceptable option with all things considered. But she already knew John's disposition towards killing civilians. Putting the issue aside, she continued her patrol and turned a left into a relatively quieter tunnel, away from the hoarse screaming of the couple behind her. As she turned into this section she spotted a woman in rags creeping out of a side room.

She caught sight of Cameron and quickly covered her face before fleeing down the corridor. Cameron drew her sidearm and made to pursue but stopped as the ceiling began to shake and a few of the dim overhead bulbs popped. A deep rumbling was easily heard from above as an FK tank or 'Centaur,' as the soldiers called them, rolled over their position. Cameron waited for it to pass before easing up and placing her gun back in its holster. The woman was long gone but as Cameron started down the corridor, she heard something else.

Cameron could hear a strangled wailing noise from the room the woman had just left, and though she was inclined to chase her down, Cameron stepped inside the room instead. It was almost pitch black save for a single flickering bulb in the far corner. The noise increased as its source cried out incessantly. Cameron activated her heat vision and quickly located a white figure on the floor not a few steps away from where she stood. Switching to night vision, Cameron saw exactly what was creating the racket: a two week old infant.

It was flailing around and screaming at the top of its little lungs, desperate for its mother's attention. But the child's mother was gone, and as Cameron considered it, she knew the parent had no intention of returning. The child was wrapped in a few rags to keep it warm and on its belly was stuck a scrap of paper with a poorly written apology on it. Cameron considered the child and her options for dealing with it as the baby continued to scream and reach out for Cameron.

Her first instinct was to take it to the nearest civilian and have them deal with it themselves. But as she reached out to scoop the baby up from the floor, another option presented itself. They were overcrowded with more civilians than soldiers and with each new refugee to arrive they came one step closer to compromise. It only took one foolish human, usually a child, to alert Skynet to their location. An assault from HKs and Terminator foot-mobiles would be catastrophic in their current conditions. The civilians would be torn to shreds.

If she were to leave this baby in the hands of a civilian they would most likely try to hand if off to others, who would then do the same, until the child is eventually left outside to be somebody else's problem where it would either die or alert passing Skynet patrols. Cameron had heard of this happening in bunkers many times before and she was highly averse to triggering such an event here.

She could find the mother and force her to take her baby back, but what's to stop her from abandoning it again and starting the cycle all over again?

Choosing the only course that made sense to her, Cameron gently slipped her fingers around the baby's neck...

-000-

HOMESTEAD

ARROWHEAD MOUNTAINS

Hailey's face burned a deep red as she howled at the top of her lungs on the hardwood floor of John and Cameron's bedroom.

Cameron stood at a loss beside the bed, having just turned around from grabbing a bottle of talcum powder from the baby bag to find that Hailey had somehow gotten from the bed to the floor. Within seconds John came hurtling into the room, having heard Hailey's screams and the thud from downstairs. He took one look at his daughter and his eyes widened before quickly dropping to his knees and scooping her up in his arms.

"Shhhhh shhhhh it's okay, honey. It's okay. Daddy's here now. Daddy's here", he assured her, rocking her back and forth in his arms.

Cameron watched him pacify her with a piqued curiosity: she'd never seen him like this before. John continued to comfort the baby until she settled into a state of grizzling. Satisfied that she was unharmed, John cast Cameron a look of utter disbelief.

"What the hell are you doing?" he asked incredulously.

Cameron held up the bottle of talcum and replied; "I'm changing her diaper like you asked me to."

"What and you couldn't keep an eye on her for five seconds?" he chastised.

"She was lying on the bed. I turned around to open the bag and when I looked back she was on the floor", Cameron explained.

"How long does it take you to get a bottle of talc?" he asked.

"3.7 seconds", she calculated. "The bag was zippered", she then added.

John continued to glare at her for several seconds before letting out a sigh of frustration and examined Hailey again.

"Well, it looks like she wasn't hurt. But just be more careful with her next time", he pleaded.

"I will", she promised. "I'm sorry, John."

John just shook his head and took a deep breath.

It had been almost a month since Hailey was born and things hadn't got quite as smooth as anyone had hoped. Jesse was dead, which meant they were in no more danger of being bombed or sniped, but problems kept cropping up within the walls of their own home. After a careful examination, Sophie had learned that practically every cell in Hailey's body had traces of nanotechnology, which on a larger spectrum meant that for every organic cell she possessed she had a synthetic one to go with it.

To make things even more complicated, the nanotech was I-950 by design, which meant that Hailey was going to grow faster than normal, a lot faster. Sophie predicted that Hailey would be physically one year old by the end of the month, two by the end of the second month, and so on and so forth. John had expressed concern that his daughter would continue this pattern and die by the year's end, but Sophie assured him that the aging process would stop entirely once she reached maturity, as is the case with all I-950s.

While Sarah took this as a blessing, John couldn't help but feel cheated in some way, and didn't relish the idea of compacting twelve years of his daughter's life into just one. He'd heard of daughters going from being sweet and adorable to raging teenagers in the blink of an eye, but he never thought it could happen literally. And this came with its own set of problems: Hailey was getting smarter. Coupled with her already enhanced intellect, Hailey was already starting to crawl and play with toys that other one year olds would be baffled with.

The past month had felt so rushed for John that he was starting to wonder if he would ever be able to catch up.

Thankfully, Cameron was perfectly able to adapt to the constant changes. But John couldn't help but feel saddened every time he woke up in the morning to find that Hailey had grown that little bit more in the night.

Once she was settled, John placed Hailey back on the bed and started changing her diaper whilst Cameron simply watched and compared his inefficient technique against hers. After cleaning her up and putting her in a fresh diaper, John playfully blew on Hailey's stomach, making her squeal with childish delight. Cameron idly wondered what that felt like and considered asking him to give her a taster later in the evening as he lifted Hailey up into his arms and kissed her brow.

John considered Cameron for a few seconds before adjusting his grip on Hailey.

"Wanna have another try?" he asked her.

Before Cameron could answer, John placed Hailey in her arms and instructed her in the correct method of holding the baby. Certain that she was secure in Cameron's arms, John took a step back to admire the scene. Cameron simply stood there with a look akin to a dog after having flashing reindeer antlers strapped to its head. Her disdain couldn't have been any more obvious and even Hailey could sense she was not appreciated and started to squirm.

"Ya know, you're going to have to get used to this", John sighed.

"Why? You always enjoy holding her anyway", Cameron replied.

"Yeah, but there's gonna be times when I'll have my hands full and someone else has to look after her", John explained.

"Like if you're under attack, for example?" Cameron countered slyly.

John's expression darkened as he sighed at her remark.

"How am I to protect you if I have this baby in my arms?" she continued.

"You won't have to. I can look after myself", he replied darkly.

Cameron felt tempted to list the many reasons why he couldn't look after himself, but thought better of it. Instead, she asked a question that had bounced around her chip for weeks.

"How do you expect me to love this child and still look after you?"

"You love me, don't you?" he asked.

"Yes", she replied with that usual hesitation while she checked and double checked its meaning.

"You will do anything to keep me safe because you love me, not because you're programmed to. That's not even a reason anymore. But I'm giving you a reason to protect our daughter: you have to learn to love her like a mother", he explained.

"But I love you", she said.

"Then love her too", he sighed.

Cameron considered his words carefully and couldn't help but see a point there, but loving more than one person was even more of an alien concept to her than loving in the first place. She never learned to love John, it just happened. Cameron couldn't see how such a glitch would occur a second time. With an almost apologetic expression, Cameron handed her back to John and made for the door.

"I have to patrol the perimeter. It will be dusk soon", she declared.

"Cameron, wait", John said.

Cameron stopped and looked over her shoulder at him, patiently waiting to hear what he had to say, but John was at a loss for words and just sighed. Seeing defeat in his features, Cameron turned back to the door and spotted a spider crawling up the frame. She promptly squashed it beneath her palm and proceeded downstairs without another word, leaving John to tend to Hailey as she started wailing in his arms in protest of the absence of her mother.

-000-

SUNRISE LODGE - APARTMENT 101

LOS ANGELES

"No, Jason, it doesn't come with a pool. I told you once already."

Sophie stepped down the bare hallway of yet another prospective apartment, scanning its every feature and comparing it to recordings of their previous arrangements. So far she was impressed; the bathroom was generous, the lounge spacious, and the bedroom perfectly adequate. There was, however, no pool to bathe in.

"Yeah, like you really feel my pain over that one. I can hear the tears gushing from your eyes... Sounds like Niagara", she quipped.

Sophie's phone, like everything she owned, was decidedly temporary; as was the last two apartments she and Jason stayed in over the past month. Movement was necessary; for Jason was convinced the assassin was keeping tabs on them in particular. Now, however, he was certain they were safe. Though she kept her silence, Sophie was tired of the constant uprooting. To settle into a single place and not move for more than a week or two was a most welcome prospect.

"Well aside from that, I think this is as good a place as any. Lots of space, not too many windows to be observed, and a basement for you to tinker with your toys, so to speak", she explained, glancing down the hallway to the two large carriers she'd been hauling from one apartment to the other. "So... any decisions?" she pressed.

Jason considered for a few seconds before giving his approval, relieving Sophie more than a little.

"Good boy. I'm gonna just set up shop. I should be done by the time you come home. You will be home tonight, right?" she asked. Sophie listened with a sigh as he explained the unlikelihood of his return, citing the possibility that the assassin might turn up in the one place they least expect. Frustrated, Sophie snapped the phone shut and removed the battery.

If you want my attention you'll have to come and get it, she reasoned.

Though she knew it was futile. He wouldn't give up on his "mission" just to keep her satisfied. As much as she hated to admit it, Jason was succumbing more and more to his machine side. Unless they performed the procedure soon, he would be reduced to nothing more than the most basic Terminator logic: mission first, nothing later.

Sophie swore to never let that happen, even if she had to rip out her own heart to complete the procedure.

Closing her eyes and letting out a deep sigh, Sophie stepped into what would be their bedroom and flexed her muscles whilst simultaneously releasing prolactin throughout her body. Within a few seconds her entire body relaxed and the sores from the past few days seemed to just slip away. In fact, her dosage quickly proved to be a little generous, and Sophie staggered for a second as blood rushed to her head. Taking a moment to collect herself, Sophie breathed deeply and opened her eyes.

Her heart stopped just as suddenly as it started as she looked upon the stranger standing just a few feet away from her. Within a microsecond her internal F.R.S. kicked in and calculated a 73% profile match with the very assassin she was supposed to be hiding from.

"Now just wait-", he began.

But Sophie learned long ago not to pass up an opportunity to get the upper hand on an enemy, and she wasn't about to let such an opportunity slip by. Moving with such speed that she almost appeared as a blur, Sophie knocked his hand aside and stuck him in the chest. Ethan slammed into the wall with a grunt, the impact sending cracks across the plaster like a spider's web. Sophie followed with a punch to his face, but Ethan dodged, sending her fist straight through the plaster.

She tried again with the same result before bringing her leg up to strike his stomach, but Ethan was far swifter than she gave him credit for and blocked the attack, followed by one of his own, knocking her back. Realising that she wasn't going to go quietly, Ethan stepped up his assault and violently delivered two nerve strikes to her breasts. Sophie screamed out in surprise; his precision was unparalleled, just like that of an I-950. She had little time to ponder this revelation, however, as Ethan made to hit her again.

Not wanting to repeat that unpleasant experience, Sophie ducked down and drove her finger tips into his knee cap. Ethan buckled with a very satisfying snarl, allowing her a strike to his jaw. Ethan flew back with the force of her punch, hitting the floor hard. Kicking his legs aside, Sophie moved in for the kill, her fingers curled into a death grip.

Reaching underneath himself, Ethan grabbed his handgun and quickly brought it to bear, stopping Sophie in her tracks. Before she could muster a response, Ethan fired a shot into each shoulder, flooring her as a result.

The agony of her injuries subsided almost immediately, thanks to her quieting of the nerves; but she could not get her arms to respond. Sophie's fingers twitched and clawed at the hardwood floor, but that was all they could do. Ethan's bullets were precisely placed, jamming the joints and preventing them from moving properly. Her first instinct was to get up and flee, for she could offer no challenge in this condition, but Ethan placed his boot on her chest, pinning her to the floor.

"Now that I have your attention", he began, examining his knee for further damage. "Maybe you can be so kind as to stay put and behave yourself while I pop this cap back into place, hmm?" he proposed. Seeing no other option available to her, Sophie nodded with clenched teeth. Satisfied, Ethan lowered his gun and reached down to his knee. With a sickening click, he popped his knee cap back into place and shuddered from the brief wave of pain before placing his foot back on her chest and pointing the gun at her head.

"And yes; I do know what you are. So don't try to convince me that putting a bullet through your brain won't end your rather generous lifespan", he said.

Sophie kept her silence as she stared up at the man who now held her life in his index finger.

"Do you know who I am?" he asked.

Sophie waited a beat before choosing to answer; "You're Skynet's newest plaything", she spat.

"Quite the contrary", he sneered. "I have no more allegiance to Skynet than you do. In fact, everything I'm doing and everything I have already done is in spite of the machines. You see, I am not your enemy, Sophie Young."

Her heart skipped a beat at his usage of her surname. Few knew it, for it was given to her as part of an unfulfilled infiltration assignment back in the days of her service to Skynet... before the holocaust of her people. For him to know that name he'd either have to be one of the I-950s that survived the purge or someone who knew her personally. She could not place him anywhere in her memory, however.

"How do you know that name?" she enquired, deciding she might as well try her luck in the off chance that he might answer.

Something flickered in his eyes as he processed her question; a sense of familiarity that unnerved Sophie.

"Oh I know more about you than you do", he replied, clicking the safety on his gun. "After all, you brought me into this world."

"I... what?" she gasped, unable to comprehend his meaning.

Ethan took a steadying breath before taking a step he never thought he would have to take.

"I... am your son."

Sophie's eyes widened as she absorbed this unbelievably audacious claim, but along with disbelief came a rampant desire to qualm any doubt; so her cybernetic scanners worked overtime to analyse every detail of his features and compare them to her own. When the results presented them self to her a few seconds later the odds of him telling the truth weighed in his favour, but only when she compared them to another's specification...

"Jason is the father?" she bleated before choking on her own words and finding herself dumbstruck.

Ethan nodded silently and slowly removed his boot from her chest. She was the last person in the world he wanted to harm, and seeing her paralysed and helpless tore him up inside. It had been too long since he last saw his mother, his last memory of her being far from pleasant. Pictures of her lying amongst rubble, bloody and broken, flashed before his eyes. He wanted nothing more than to avoid having to meet her in this time, but now he had no other choice. She was his only hope.

"In the future I came from... the war is over. We won. Skynet and all of its machinations are destroyed. Those that remained fell under Resistance command. Connor appointed us as his chief advisors in the recovery effort. We were finally rebuilding the world. But there was a virus... a disease that swept through every camp. It was killing hundreds every week. Our best scientists came up with a vaccine that could cure the virus, but others presented an alternative option: they called it Transcendence", he explained.

Sophie, still struggling with her son's revelation, weakly turned to listen to his story: a single tear falling down the side of her face.

"It's Connor's daughter. She's the one who started it all. The cure was working. We were dealing with the problem, but then she came along with her so-called 'long-term solution'... Cybernetic infusion! Taking people and robbing them of their humanity by installing her nanotech into their blood, creating a polluted life form. Too many people took to her idea. And before we knew what was going on, she had a whole army of augmented humans pushing to enforce her technology on the rest of humanity."

Ethan pulled up a chair and sat in it as he removed the clip from his gun and stared at the top bullet with melancholy contemplation.

"Fighting broke out between the two factions... We stood our ground with Connor, but that meant standing with the girl, so we got caught in the crossfire. I remember... I remember my father standing his ground before the crowd. And then there was this blinding light and this deafening crack. The next thing I know he's lying in pieces, melted chunks of him strewn all over the place. And you... you were just lying there... torn to shreds by the blast wave", he choked, his own eyes tearing up for the first time in months.

Sophie's entire body was numb. She felt as if she had already departed for the heavens and was simply tethered to her corpse, but the dim beating of her heart reminded her that she was still alive. The world as she knew it had been turned on its head. She had a son. Jason's son. A vengeful son. There would be no happy ending for her or Jason or their progeny. It was all for nothing.

"I can't change what happened. But I can stop it here and now. The cyborg's child has to die before she can grow up to become that monster. Don't you see? It's the lesser of two evils. One life does not outweigh the lives of the many. I need your help, please", he pleaded, falling to his knees and taking her hand in his. "Mother... Please help me."

Her muscles contracted around the bullet, pushing it back through the entry wound and out of her body. Feeling her arm faintly returning, Sophie willed her fingers to tighten around her son's. But she did not concede to his wishes and pushed him away with all the energy she had left. Ethan fell back in disbelief at her refusal, shaking his head incredulously as he slowly clambered back to his feet and staggered out of the room. A few moments later she heard the door slam shut and all the world fell silent.

The other bullet eased itself out of her left shoulder, allowing the wound to close itself and begin the healing process, relieving her of the discomfort and restoring her arm to partial usability. But nothing could fill the empty void that occupied her soul. All of her enhancements were powerless to quash this agony. So she made no effort to get up from the floor and simply remained where she laid, every cell in her body screaming for the earth to swallow her whole and never return her to the world.

-000-

KALIBA TOWER – L.A. BRANCH

SAN FRANCISCO

A great deal of history surrounded what was now called the Kaliba Tower, much of it revolving around the "betterment of mankind". When it was first built in the 1900s the tower served as the main hub for technological research for a company called 'CyberTech Corporations'. During the ten years of their occupancy they made several unpublished leaps in cybernetic research, resulting in the very first super soldier exoskeleton design. In the later decades they merged with rival company 'Datadyne' after finding a piece of advanced hardware far beyond anything they could ever have conceived. The coalition subsequently christened itself 'Cyberdyne Systems'.

From this building, Cyberdyne oversaw the progress of its various R&D facilities spread across Los Angeles. One such facility was destroyed in a terrorist bombing in 1995, resulting in the loss of two artefacts salvaged from a crippled T-800 series Terminator in 1984. Luckily for Cyberdyne, all of the facility's files were backed up on the Tower's servers and other pieces of the machine, like the leg for example, were safely stored inside their deepest vaults. Following a series of funding issues, however, Cyberdyne Systems fell into liquidation and its assets were sold to the highest bidder. The company that bought the majority of Cyberdyne's interests was known only as 'Kaliba'.

To date, the nature of the Kaliba Group's research is unknown to the American government and its citizens...

And it's going to stay that way, thought Doctor Serena Kogen, Vice President of the Kaliba Group, as she sipped on her tea whilst rifling through her team's latest field report. As she shuffled through the reports, Serena took a moment to reflect on her tenure at Kaliba: ten whole years of tireless research leading to one absolute goal, and now after all this time she could feel the fruit of her labours coming to bear. Much had happened in that time, but even the cancer that threatened her ambitions could not stop her work.

And I will be damned if one little technophobe is going to end it all now, she thought.

Pushing the papers aside, Serena picked up the memory stick attachment and plugged it into her computer. After a few seconds it opened with a list of recordings from various surveillance ops, but her interest lay in only one particular clip. Serena selected the footage and sat back in her chair to contemplate what she was seeing: a woman was talking to an informant. Moments later, the informant was taken out by Serena's sniper. Clicking the zoom function, Serena then paused the video in time to capture the woman's face in clear detail.

The facial recognition software on her computer immediately confirmed her suspicions: the face belonged to none other than Sarah Connor, a known terrorist threat against all things mechanical. But as far as the rest of the world knew, Sarah Connor was dead. Serena was not so misinformed, however, and was in fact surprised that it took Sarah this long to track their company down. With a sigh, Serena made a note on her to-do list to make arrangements for Sarah's immediate disposal. Kaliba would not suffer such a threat, especially not when they were so close to reshaping the world for the future.

Interrupting her brief reverie, the small intercom on her desk buzzed, and with an annoyed grunt Serena answered the call.

"Yes?" she said.

"I'm sorry to disturb you, Ms Kogen. But the Chief Executive would like to see you", her timid secretary announced.

Rubbing her temple with annoyance, Serena replied, "Very well. Send him in, Charity."

A few seconds later the fine oak door of her office room opened and a tall man passed through it casually. Serena spared him only the slightest glance as he strode towards her in full comfort of his surroundings, for he had graced her office an unaccountable number of times in the past. This man, this strong, intelligent, African-American man was joint CEO of the Kaliba Group; his power second only to Serena, but only by the fact that she was more corporately knowledgeable than he was.

Taking a seat opposite her, the Chief Exec immediately recognised that she would not spare him her full attention and began his customary sweep of her office, for Serena was averse to having the same decor for more than a week at a time. Whilst scanning the various cultural artefacts surrounding him, the man stopped at a painting of what he could only describe as a Geiger-esque nightmare. It depicted the twisted form of a man, his body pale and contorted by extensive and imaginatively painful machinery. He shuddered at the thought of having steel rods running up his nostrils and out of his ears, not to mention the eye clamps...

"Is there something I can do for you?" Serena suddenly interjected, having glanced up to see him eyeing her painting.

The man stood up and approached the picture for a closer look, studying the intricate detail with a sickly fascination.

"I have to say, Serena; this is the single most hideous decoration you've ever owned", he opined.

"I'm glad you like it", she replied sardonically. "But you didn't answer my question."

The man turned on the spot and raised his eyebrows.

"I happen to be very busy", she elaborated, gesturing to the pile of notes and data cards littering her desk.

The man smirked and nodded his head, taking a step towards the desk.

"Yes, I know that. So well in fact, that I'm sure there's something you need to tell me", he replied slyly.

This time it was her turn to act surprised; "And what makes you think that?" she asked.

"You never spend this long going over field reports unless it's something of exceptional importance", he answered knowingly.

Seeing no point in denying the fact any further, Serena conceded.

"Fine. It's probably best you hear this from me and not my careless assistant out there", she said, her eyes lingering on the door.

"What... Charity? I always liked her. Ever so helpful. Easy on the eyes..." he replied.

"Eyes are the only thing she's easy on. Try asking her to transcribe and... urgh. Anyway", Serena sighed, leaving her receptionist's dismissal for another day. She picked up a photocopy of the still image captured from the video logs and handed it to the man, who examined it carefully.

"I don't get it. Who is she?" he eventually said.

"Look closer. I'm sure it'll come to you eventually", Serena replied.

Still baffled, he walked over to the nearby window, allowing the sun to cast the photo in a different light. Slowly but surely he started to feel a sense of familiarity with the woman in the photograph. It was blurred, distant, but the more he thought on it the clearer the image became. The clearer it became the more he remembered. And the more he remembered... the deafening sound of gunfire:

"Don't hurt my daddy!" a young boy screamed.

"Nobody fucking move!" replied a raspy voiced woman in black combat attire, a silver gun gripped firmly in her hands.

The boy shielded his father, who lay bleeding on the floor from a single gunshot wound to his left shoulder. He tried pushing the boy away, but his son was without fear for his own safety. All he cared about was protecting his father, his family.

"Get down on the floor, bitch! Fucking down now!" the woman screamed at his mother, who cowered in tears on the floor beside them. "Get out of the way!" she ordered, pointing the gun at the boy.

"Don't hurt him!" the boy screamed again.

With what little energy he had left, the father managed to push his boy off long enough for the mother to grab him tight, leaving him wide open to the mad woman's fury.

"Get on the floor! Fucking down now!" the woman repeated to the mother.

"Just... Just let the boy go..." his father pleaded, propping himself up on the coffee table.

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! Shut up! It's all your fault! Motherfucker! It's all your fault!" she shouted, her finger slowly pulling on the trigger of her gun.

"What?" his father replied feebly, shaking from fear and bloodloss.

The boy stared in horror at her face, contorted by desperation and rage, yet overcome with tears of grief and pain.

"I'm not gonna let you do it", she whispered, her hands shaking uncontrollably as he closed his eyes for what was to come.

Sarah Connor... Her name was Sarah Connor.

Though he could no longer remember her face, Daniel Dyson would forever remember her name, for she was the woman who marched into his life and took his father away from him, destroyed his childhood, pushed his sister to suicide, and charred a memory of hatred and unquenchable pain so deep that the very mention of her invoked nothing short of homicidal rage within the darkest depths of his soul.

Even from across the room and with his back turned; Serena could tell his hands were shaking. They had been professional partners for years, and though they did not always see eye-to-eye, she fully appreciated the circumstances of his past and the significance of the tidings she'd brought him.

"What would you like us to do about this?" she asked in her softest tone to appear sympathetic.

Daniel did not answer immediately and continued to study the image, every nerve in his body wanting to launch every missile they owned on the city until to rid the world of her. After a few moments of composure, Daniel turned and cleared his throat, holding the photo up for her to see. "Is this authentic?" he asked evenly.

"One hundred percent. There is no doubt that it's her", Serena answered carefully.

"You're absolutely sure?" he pressed.

"Our computers don't lie, Danny", she affirmed, adding his nickname as a soother.

Danny nodded silently and turned back to the window again, his arms crossed in deep contemplation as he decided what to do about it. After several minutes of agonisingly awkward silence, he finally returned to the desk and placed the photo back among the rest. "I want her removed... permanently", he decided.

Serena nodded, but then pointed out; "You do realise this represents a much larger problem, don't you?"

"Larger than the death of my father?" he breathed darkly.

"I'm afraid so", she replied calmly. "Take a closer look at her, Danny. Something is amiss, right? She should be pushing forty-five by now, and yet she looks barely thirty. Doesn't that strike you as a little odd?"

"Do I care?" he snapped.

"You should. Because the only way she could remain undetected for this long is if she was invisible or hiding in a hole somewhere or-" Serena began.

"Or if she jumped ahead", Danny realised.

"Right! You remember those radiological reports from the bank vault? We always suspected it was from a time travel device", she explained. "Put two and two together and you get..."

"An insurgent from the future", he concluded.

Serena nodded, "Maybe even a cyborg reprogrammed by the survivors. We can't let an opportunity like this pass us by."

"Agreed. We'll have to tag her and keep a close watch. I'll leave you to make the arrangements", Danny replied, making his way to the door. "But one thing to keep in mind", he added, stopping to look over his shoulder at Serena; "The second we get capture her cohort; I want her brought to me alive."

"You have my word", Serena promised with a devious smile.

Satisfied, Danny departed, leaving Serena alone with the task before her. Pressing the intercom and forgetting all about Charity's overdue pink slip, Serena said; "Clear my schedule for today, Charity. We have a lot of work to do."

"Yes, Ms Kogen", Charity replied with a hint of dejection.

Let the games begin...

-000-

HOMESTEAD

ARROWHEAD MOUNTAINS

"Can you say dada?"

Hailey looked up at her father and listened without comprehension. As advanced as she was, Hailey was still just a child, and she was not ready to start communicating by verbal means. For now, she preferred physical cues; such as clapping her hands when John made her favourite baby food, and throwing a toy at Sarah when she made her mashed up pancake surprise. She had many subtle ways of communicating with the adults around her, and saw no reason to complicate it with a so far unnecessary skill set.

"Come on, Hailey. Say dada", John persisted, mistaking the baby's disinterest for misunderstanding.

Hailey, bored with this new game, turned away from her father and began stacking the letter blocks Great Uncle Derek had bought her. Unnoticed by them, she positioned each one to create the most statistically stable structure. A child psychiatrist might diagnose her as autistic, but Hailey's mind was simply far more advanced than the average human being. For she herself was not entirely... human.

"Say shotgun", Sarah interjected from the couch, her head resting against her palm as she watched the baby contently.

"I think she's a little young to be cataloguing small arms", John chuckled.

"It's still only two syllables", she pointed out.

The baby regarded Sarah for a moment as if thinking about it, but quickly returned to her stacking. Suddenly the floor started to tremble from heavy footsteps as Uncle Derek staggered into the room, an empty beer can clutched in his hand. Despite his disruption, Hailey's tower barely wobbled and remained tall and proud.

"Say dickwa-" he drunkenly began, only for Sarah to reach over the couch and hit him firmly in the stomach.

Hailey gave out a squeal of delight and clapped her hands as Derek clutched his stomach and groaned, Sarah's smack having upset his already troubled digestive system. Both Sarah and John beamed at the little girl as she continued to giggle at Derek's misfortune and kicked her legs excitedly.

"Oh that's nice. She really is her mother's daughter", he slurred, swaying a little on the spot and suppressing the urge to regurgitate.

"How about you do us all a favour and drown yourself in the water barrel out front?" Sarah suggested testily.

With a mocking salute, he followed her advice and stumbled through the front door, closing it behind him. A second later the door jolted at the unmistakable sound of him falling back against it and sliding down to the floor. Not caring to check if he was still conscious, since both Sarah and John were inclined to think he wasn't, they continued to watch Hailey as she tapped her knees and made gurgling noises.

Minutes passed as they admired the little girl in silence, occasionally handing her new toys to play with. After a little while a sharp whistle came from the kitchen, signalling that dinner was ready; or ruined, as was the case with Sarah a majority of the time. Cameron descended the stairs just as Sarah came rushing to save the pot roast, oven mitts in her hands, and observed the scene before her. Following her carelessness earlier, Cameron had kept a distance from the baby and John, preferring to stay in the bathroom to complete a long list of beauty rituals on her person. She had intentionally taken her time to avoid any unnecessary altercations with the Connors.

Being given away by a squeaky floorboard, Cameron found herself the centre of attention as both John and the child turned to look at her intently.

"So you've finally emerged. How long does it take you to wax your legs, anyway?" John chided.

"I was very thorough. And it wasn't just my legs that needed attention", she answered truthfully.

John flushed at her self-explanatory statement and tried not to think in too much detail. He was still angry with her about her behaviour towards their child and anything to do with her body was an effective distraction, as she knew all too well.

"Well then I guess you won't mind if I take a quick shower before dinner", he said, getting to his feet.

Cameron looked from him to Hailey and back again, an expression akin to alarm on her face.

"I'm sure you can handle babysitting for 20 minutes, can't you?" he added pointedly, manoeuvring around the couch to pass her.

"Wouldn't you rather I join you?" she proposed, adding a hint of mischief to her voice.

John saw right through her ploy, however, and smirked; "I said I wanted a quick shower", he replied before swiftly ascending.

Her last hope gone, Cameron resigned herself to the duty of being watchdog and promptly sat on the couch with an air of minute exasperation with her charge. She thought it curious, however, that she could feel so averse to performing the very same task she did for John every day. Looking down at the happy little cherub she wondered if it was always going to be like this. John wouldn't be happy until she took on the role he desired for her. But being a mother was not in her programming. What little nurturing skills she possessed were slanted towards combat training and endurance enhancement. Not cuddling and teddy bears.

Cameron continued to watch Hailey with little interest for almost seventeen minutes before something worthwhile caught her attention. A spider, much like the one she killed earlier, was scuttling its ways towards where Hailey sat. Cameron's first instinct was to observe, but a microsecond later she recalled that its bite was aggravating to the skin and might cause the baby much distress, which would then incur John's wrath for letting the baby come into contact with a harmful arachnid.

As Cameron lifted her foot to stomp on it, Hailey moved like lightning; grabbing a rubber duck and smashing it down on the tiny spider with a rather satisfying squish. Cameron slowly placed her foot back on the floor as she contemplated what she just experienced with a deep sense of intrigue. Reaching down, she removed the duck to reveal the dead spider beneath; perfectly dispatched by her miniature offspring. A clean kill, she mused.

Glancing back at Hailey, she was struck with a sight that instilled an even greater feeling of wonder: the letters on Hailey's block tower followed a pattern from the second down, and as she read the lettering Hailey turned the top block to show the first letter, spelling a word Cameron recognised but up until now refused to acknowledge:

M

O

M

M

Y

Cameron tipped her head a little to one side as she took in the spectacle, and Hailey copied her blatantly. Cameron blinked, her mouth falling open just a tiny bit. She couldn't interpret the data she was being presented with, but when the baby reached out with her chubby little hands, every response instructed her to offer her hand in return. Hailey clutched the tip of Cameron's finger, causing the cyborg to gasp in surprise of her strength.

Daughter stared at Mother. And Mother stared at Daughter.

It seemed to her like the most natural thing to do as she slid her hands beneath the baby's arms and gripped carefully, lifting the child into an embrace, just like John had shown her. Hailey placed her short little arms on Cameron's neck and held onto her shirt for support as she nestled against her soft brown hair. A tiny sliver of drool dripped onto her shoulder, but Cameron didn't care. Every sensation, every touch, every smell, was reintroduced to her with a meaning that was infinitely more poignant than before.

This child, this burden, carried far more worth than she had ever allowed herself to acknowledge. All this time she'd been missing a vital piece to the puzzle, but now she understood. The most important things in the world are so rarely realised without the slightest hint, given at the perfect time when one's mind is unprepared for such an epiphany. She held her daughter carefully in her arms, treating her as if she were made of glass, but knowing that the stuff her baby was made of would not easily break. Closing her eyes, Cameron breathed in the smells and warmth of her baby and slowly rocked from side to side, setting the infant fast asleep.

Vaguely did she notice John coming down the stairs, rubbing his hair dry with a towel, a look of utter disbelief on his face.

He had never seen anything so heart-wrenchingly beautiful in his entire life.

-000-

I can't do this...

After months of planning and consolidating his resolve, Ethan could no longer summon the will to take the life of an innocent. From his hiding place in tree-line surrounding the Connor's household he watched as Cameron cradled her baby in her arms, a look of undeniable contentment on her placid features. Her brown eyes sparkled with a light that came not from her ocular hardware, but from deep within the place she called her 'heart'. Lowering his rifle, Ethan slumped back against the tree just was Jesse had done weeks ago.

An alternate tactic was necessary, but he knew now that he would need another's help, and killing Jesse was the worst mistake to make.

Defeated, he crept back into the woodlands, vanishing into the darkness mere moments before a barely conscious Derek struggled to his feet, almost fell back down, and with a spectacular kaplunk; dunked his head into the water barrel.

To be continued...