Things have all happened so fast Kyle doesn't think his brain's caught up with his body yet. The past day has been running, adrenaline, fear, and finally relief, back where he belongs with Marcus and Star; home in the only sense of the word he has. He's seen Skynet's heartland and survived, and to be honest it somehow makes him feel more important in the scheme of things, even though he was nearly meat. He went into the belly of the beast and John Conner himself got him out. And now that man is lying on a table in a medic tent with a gaping hole in the middle of his chest.
And that's hardly the only thing he's mostly failing to process. He didn't even notice it at first even though Marcus had had his arm wrapped around him in the copter. He sneaks a look out of the corner of his eye; shining plain metal, strangely delicate. His hand... inhuman enough to look entirely detached from his body, like he's hiding the real one up his sleeve ready to whip it out and say 'ha, ha, it's only a joke'. But he can see the fingers curling around Star's and knows that isn't true. Is he all machine? Or only part? He can't reconcile the thought in his mind, not Marcus, the most human person he's ever met, with the machines that have been trying to kill him ever since he can remember.
The woman – Conner's wife – comes over to their little group, her cheeks wet with tears. "His heart can't take it," she says, choking on the words. But it's too soon, Kyle wants to protest. He's the leader of the Resistance, he can't die!
The silence is harsh, whispering with the noise of Conner's laboured breathing, his wife's muffled sobs as she covers her face with one hand, the other hugged tight over her pregnant belly. And then, of all people, it's Marcus who breaks it.
"Take my heart," he says. "If it can save him, I want you to."
Kyle gapes at him. What is he talking about? Yes, Conner is important, yes he deserves to live, but that doesn't mean Marcus should give up his life for him! How can they be sure it will even work?
Kate just looks at him, gratitude in her eyes, and Kyle knows she will take this chance, take any chance to save Conner's life. It isn't fair, and it might not work, but she doesn't care. The thought of anyone having that kind of emotion for someone makes him feel kind of funny inside. He doesn't really get it, not the strength of it. It kind of scares him. Sure, he would do whatever he could to protect his little family, for Star and now Marcus, so maybe, yeah, he sort of understands, but not when it's Marcus' life they're talking about. He wants to shout at her; Don't you dare! Or to Marcus; How can you do this? but he's not under any illusion that either of them would notice or care. So he just stares in mute horror at Marcus as he happily sacrifices himself.
In the end Marcus doesn't even talk to him, just gives him a sympathetic look as he lets the surgeon take him and Conner away. And then Kyle and Star are ushered out of the tent with the rest of them, into the harsh and unforgiving light of the desert. He thinks the setting is strangely appropriate.
It's late in 2018. Marcus Wright is dead; John Conner lives. By all rights it shouldn't have worked, Kate knows that, but desperation makes people take whatever chance they can get, no matter how slim. Marcus was no longer human, and his heart only partly so, but she had been counting on that. Her husband's body will not reject it, and ironically they have the machine's technology to thank for that.
Skynet's California base has been destroyed, and the Resistance fully means to exploit it once John is recovered. It will be some time before the machines will be able to manufacture the materials for another control aerial, and they will have to send it cross-country from the eastern coast; their stronghold of the world. If the Resistance moves quickly they can take this state back, and maybe they can hold it, if they're lucky. And John will be heading them, and Kate has heard those same tapes from the past. He is destined to win this war, and maybe, just maybe, this is the beginning of the end.
August 2018. Marcus Wright is buried with ceremony in the desert outside their Nevada base. John is feeling almost like new, the only reminders of his new heart his scars and his memories. He watches Kyle Reese, watches his father. It's strange to say the least. He's heard so much from his mother about him, but she knew him ten years down the line and thirty-five in the past, and right now he's just a boy, a boy with fierce, wild eyes and a cautious face, with the hand of the young girl he's adopted after a fashion tight in his hand. If there are tears behind those eyes, and John suspects there are, he's not willing to show them.
He doesn't know what he was expecting of this younger version of his father. How he can be expected to construct an image of reality backwards in time from snippets and snatches of impression his mother gave him he doesn't know, but he's not sure this boy is it. He can't yet see the man he will become, only the kid he is.
The first handful of earth is thrown of Marcus' body, wrapped in a shroud in a shallow grave, all they can do for their dead these days. Conner still doesn't know exactly what made him trust him that night in the river, whether it was the now-dim memories of the T-800s that came back to protect him all those years ago, sent from the Resistance to protect him, maybe even sent by his future self, or whether it was something he saw in the machine's eyes, but he had proved himself worthy of that trust. He was close enough to grudgingly be called human, or human enough. John was prepared to compromise pretty far for a dead android. It wasn't as though calling it human mattered now, so he can admit it if it makes Kyle happy. And he is thankful, dammit. And for more than just the rescue of his father and the destruction of Skynet's base; he can feel even now the heavy, strong beats of the foreign heart in his chest. The machine gave a lot to the cause. They can call him human for that.
"What are we going to do about Kyle?" Kate asks John calmly, her hands gentle on his chest where she is checking the now-healed scar.
"What do you mean 'what are we going to do about Kyle'" he replies aggressively, reaching for his shirt.
"I know you want to keep an eye on him, but this is not the safest place for him to be."
John bristles, a little. Kyle can take care of himself, he knows, and this is his base; it damn well ought to be safe! "He's okay here," he maintains. Kate sighs; she's been hinting at this for a while.
"He's still a kid, John, not to mention Star, who won't even leave his side. You can't, or rather won't, let him go on missions, because we both know how important he is to the future, and we can't let a stray bullet jeopardise that. And what else is there for him to do here? Train for twelve hours a day with an air gun until we work out how to let him fight without messing up the timeline?"
"He has to fight eventually, otherwise he won't be the same man," John replies mulishly.
"Yes, but not yet! He's a child John!"
"No more than we were at the start of this war. He's tough; he's survived this long by himself." He doesn't look at her, staring instead at the creamy, rough edges of his scar disappearing as he pulls his shirt down over his head.
"Who are you trying to convince John?" she asks. "We both know you don't want him out there either. Yes, he's survived this long, but things are supposed to be easier for him now he's found us."
"So what's your idea?"
"Send him to the Utah camps."
John laughs, the sound startled out of him, harsh as a crow. "The camps? Are you fucking kidding me? He's my fucking Dad, Kate, I'm not sending him up to the goddamn breeding camps so he can cheat on my mum!"
"Don't be an idiot John, he hasn't even met her yet," Kate snaps. "I just think there might be some people there his own age. It would be good for him. And if you're really so concerned about the safety of his morals, forge him a sterility certificate. Then he certainly doesn't have to do anything he doesn't want to."
John glares at her, but Kate has always been able to match him in a battle of wills. That's why he loves here – most of the time. "That's not the way it goes on the tapes."
"And is that really something about himself your dad is going to think important enough to tell Sarah when they're both on the run?" she replies, not unkindly. "Trust me, he's not going to fall in love with the wrong person."
"Well if I start to vanish from existence, you can goddamn tell yourself I told you so."
They let him keep Marcus' coat. It's pretty torn up, but it still smells of him under the char-stink of explosives. They used to curl up together for warmth at nights, the three of them, Marcus at his back and Star tucked in his arms with the coat over the top of them, in the week or so between Los Angeles and the gas station where the machines caught them. It's kind of odd that Marcus smelled so... human, considering. It's still a weird little fact in Kyle's mind, one that's not had the time or space to sink in yet around all the other, bigger things that have happened. It's surreal, it's a blur; he met him, he changed his life, and then he gave it all up so John Conner would live. He knows he shouldn't be so bitter about it, after all Conner didn't ask for him to do it, and he is the leader of the Resistance. They need him to win this war. But even so every time he sees the man he feels like shouting at him. Wishing, if he's brutally honest with himself, that their places were switched, that Conner was dead and Marcus was alive. He's lost people before, but somehow this time it's different.
Marcus Wright is dead and Kyle honestly doesn't know what he's meant to do with himself now. Before, it was all about surviving. If not for Marcus he would never have found the Resistance. But now it's like he's in a kind of limbo. He's been practising his aim and he's ready to go out and kill Skynet's machines, but Conner looks at him like he's still just a kid, as if they didn't have other soldiers who can't be more than a year older than him. He's been on his own for three years hunting rats and coyote and finding the odd tin of food lost in the rubble of the cities from which everyone else stays well away, and he's survived. Nothing the post Judgement Day world has thrown at him has managed to kill him yet. There are no 'kids' anymore, he'd told Marcus that, but apparently Conner doesn't believe so, and everyone else here follows his lead. Maybe he was better off before, as the 'LA branch' of the Resistance. But Marcus... Marcus had drawn him into his path like a desert soaks up rainwater, and he had been sucked up into his crazy-ass life. Star would come with him if he really wanted to go back, but they have food here, not a lot but regular, and Star needs to eat. So they'll stay. For now.
The Resistance have scattered bases and outposts all over up here in the Nevada desert and its outskirts, with more down in Arizona, and other places he doesn't know about. They survive by being spread out, and there are still a surprising number of them. Conner sat him down and gave him the history of the Resistance one afternoon, how Skynet turned the nukes on the world and annihilated the cities, the fallout blacking out the sun and killing millions through radiation poisoning. How the survivors were those in the small towns and countryside, still plenty of them. The long process of arming themselves, working out a new organisation, and Skynet's long campaign against them. The Resistance has its heartland, where the Hunter-Killers and the like cannot go without being shot down, but they must still keep themselves spread out, for fear of another nuke. It is a slow war of attrition.
Nevada is a battlefield area, and they keep most of the copters and planes out here out in the desert under camo netting. Kyle has had plenty of time to look around. No one seems to know what to do with him, other than feed him and give him a bed at night. Star sticks close; she's shy about all these faces, the presence of other people, more together than either of them have ever seen before. They explore the base together, and Kyle asks questions of the people he's learned don't mind answering him.
He's learned that they keep the aircraft as scattered as the people, as all resources. The fuel is makeshift, what little petrol and diesel is left after fourteen years of scavenging the remains of gas stations all across the state, stretched with biofuels; ethanol and treated cooking oil that stinks in a very odd, organic way. In the older vehicles, the ones that can be converted cheapest, they run just the oil. It makes the engines cough, and make strange noises, but it works. They cannot afford factories – they make too good targets. Instead the processing of the fuel, and anything else the Resistance needs is done piecemeal, in sheds and houses and barns and wherever else a few people can hammer together the equipment and churn out a few gallons a week. Vehicle repairs, new construction, food production, it's all done like this.
But the thing that interests Kyle the most to find out is the that the base they blew up, the base where he was being held, was the only big base in California, and the location of Skynet's server tower. With it gone, the machines are without orders or information, cut of from the Net. They are disorganised and confused, and the time to strike is now. What Kyle can't find out is exactly when that 'now' is going to be.
In the six weeks since the destruction of the California base the Resistance have been sending out roving patrols in ever widening search patterns around human-controlled territory, armed to the teeth and with instructions to destroy any machine they find. They aren't even bothering to salvage the remains right now; there's not the vehicles or men to spare, and if things go according to plan there will be plenty of time for that later. Six weeks is a long time in a Skynet-ruled world, even though they've been doing this for fourteen years. But there's little doubt; Skynet will be sending their repair party soon. Probably they're already on the move.
John Conner is ready for them. He is de facto head of the Resistance after the deaths of the Pacific Generals, commander (theoretically) of everyone in radio range. They have no idea who might be left outside the West Coast. It's unfortunate; they could have used East Coast help with the reinforcements that could pop over the border any day now. They have their own scouts out there, and the strike force is fully fuelled and ready for action. The reserve stocks of ammo and gasoline have been brought out of storage. This might be the real turning point in the war, if the Resistance can hold what it's taken.
John is acutely aware of this. This might be the hour of his destiny, the place and time which his whole life has been sculpting him for, ever since his father rescued his mother from Skynet's assassin. That does not mean he is not taken by surprise, not to mention fear, when it finally happens.
Conner's breath is loud and fast in his ears, the palms of his hands sweaty inside gloves clasping tight to the handles of the copter's machine gun. The desert flashes beneath them, their shadows rippling over the dunes and stumpy dry brush. Skynet got the jump on them, sacrificing time to arc to the north and come down on them from Idaho in the north. But this is it now.
John glances down at the handheld comp pad strapped to his arm; the GPS shows the estimated positions of the machines and the signals of their own forces coming up to meet them. They've mustered every plane they can spare that's capable of flight, every bullet from the reserves, the last of their missiles. They're going to need it; three Transports refitted with supplies and T-700s, each flying an HK-Aerial from the docking bay on their bellies and with the heavily artillery of the Harvesters on their backs pointing guns to the sky. The Resistance will be aiming for their engines; that's pretty much the only way to take them down, but Conner would be lying if he said he didn't expect heavy casualties. One pass by the jets, then another coming back just before the helicopters reach them.
John can hear the roar of the engines coming up behind them. Adrenaline surges through him, his fierce new heart pumping eagerly in his chest. Ten minutes, perhaps a little less, and they'll find out which way this war is going to turn. However much confidence he has in himself, in the prophetic words of his mother, in this moment he is sure of nothing.
It seems a long time before the first sounds of joined battle come echoing back across the dry earth and sand, though in real time outside of anticipation it can't have been much more than a minute. The little green arrows on the GPS blink in confusion, and the noise of gunfire and rocket trails are muted at the edge of hearing. John is aware of his own voice swearing under his breath, half curse, half prayer. The lights thrash on the screen and then separate. There are noticeably fewer planes, and black oily smoke rises on the horizon through the copter's windscreen. No way to tell if any of the machines are down or not.
More long minutes, adrenaline warping time to run both slowly and quickly in parallel. He can see the dark shapes of their enemy now, skimming over the low hills. The HKs are buzzing wildly over the sky like wasps, but he can't see how many there are. High above the arcing trails of the jets circle around. But they no longer have the element of surprise, and already the Hunter-Killers have seen them and are gaining height to meet them.
Only a few hundreds of meters separate the three groups now, and as though time were an elastic band stretched to breaking point, suddenly everything is happening at once. Conner whirls the machine gun around, targeting the nearest Transport and the colossus on its back, the spent casings of his fire falling like rain, raking the sensors that might be thought of as its eyes. Sparks fly, and then all of a sudden a meteor of metal trailing smoke in a comet tail of destruction screams over them and crashes dead into the middle of the hovering craft, sending both planes down in an incandescent blaze of flames. John gapes, staring out at the hellish sky filled with bursting tracers and explosions of all sizes before gaining control of himself again, aiming his weapon once more as the helicopter tracks round, searching for another target.
The crazed battle between the planes of the Resistance and the HKs overhead is already out of sight, speed taking it over great swathes of ground in the blink of an eye. The Transports are slower, and there are only two left, one limping along from an earlier hit, its left side laid bare by a missile impact. The Harvester on its back has been lost, but the T-700s inside are armed, and firing from the wound in its flank. The other is a little battered but still strong, and its fire has brought down two choppers in these few seconds Conner has been assessing the situation.
John concentrates his fire on the undamaged Transport's engines, his helicopter dropping low out of the direct line of fire. It's a little too close to the ground for comfort, but he is hardly aware of it, caught up in the fight. His bullets find a fuel tank, a sudden gush of gasoline glugging from the holes, and then the sparks flying from the impacts on the protective casing around the engine catch and the entire side of the Transport is enveloped in flames. The craft lists heavily, the heat of the flare hitting Conner like a physical blow. The copter jinks away, and the transport is sinking down, plunging to fetch up on its back against the up-spray of stony ground its impact has caused.
Comparative silence falls. The guns have stopped firing. Looking around John sees the wreckage of the last Transport, the already wounded one, some way behind them, now utterly still and unmoving. It is over; the battle is theirs. But despite this triumph there are still noticeably fewer helicopters in the sky with him, and there is no sign of the jets at all. The GPS has lost track of their signals, whether destroyed or just out of range he doesn't know. Though at least they seem to have taken the HKs with them. It is an undisputed victory, but it comes at a heavy price.
Kyle is aware that something out of the ordinary is going on, but he still has no idea what. John Conner himself took him aside and told him to stay put close to Kate, and not go about wandering, and to do whatever she told him today. And he saw the helicopters take off, a crowd of them together like a spread-out black cloud. Heading north with the sun flashing from their sides, out into the desert. Maybe they're fending off a machine attack, or raiding a factory, or any one of a number of things he doesn't know anything about yet.
"What are we even doing here?" he mutters aloud. Star looks up at him from her seat on the stone and sand floor of the tent, rearranging the contents of her little pouches. Band aids, needle and thread, small scissors, scraps of bandage and sticky tape that make up their first aid kit, as well as a handful of .22 bullets for the little handgun she carries tucked into her clothes somewhere. Kyle was the one who gave it to her, taught her to use it in case of an emergency. He has no illusions about what use it would be against the machines, but there are other threats out there, ones which promise slower deaths. Like the fate of his father, never returning from his scavenging one morning. Whether it was the machines that got him in the end or the gang his dad had warned him about he still doesn't know, but he knows what he thinks. He never did find a body. And he's learned enough about the world now to realise that when some people are starving, they'll take what they can get, even if they have to kill for it. The machines might have been the kinder fate.
"Are you happy here Star?" he asks, crouching down next to her. She shrugs, makes the hand sign that means 'food' and then the one for 'shelter'. Kyle nods. She's right. They have a good thing going on here, and he doesn't even know himself why he's unsatisfied with it. He has no right to be, not really. For Star's sake at the very least they need to stay here. He just wishes they would let him fight!
It's night time before the first copters come back. And then as no more follow, even after all the hubbub around the first few has died away, Kyle realises that there aren't going to be any more. The rest are gone, but judging by the happy mood of everyone else he can see from his position on the outskirts of the camp whatever mission they had, it went well for them. If he was curious before he's really interested now. And because for some reason John Conner seems to have some kind of fascination with him, that's the man he goes to find.
It isn't hard. Conner is always at the centre of crowds, or with the other important people in the Resistance, or failing that, when he wants to be alone, with Kate. This time Kyle finds him in the briefing tent, the microphone of the radio to his mouth, his words rolling out over the airwaves to whoever's listening. Which will be more people than before, with Skynet's base here gone; they used to try and interfere with the signal as much as possible. He stays quiet at the entrance, signalling to Star to wait outside, and listens to the end of the broadcast.
"...with this victory, we are closer than ever to winning this war. It will not be over quickly, it will not be over easily, but one day, by your efforts, it will be over. My name is John Conner, and if you are listening to this, you are the Resistance."
Conner puts the mike down with a click, and turns the dial on the radio down and off. Night is falling, and the low powered lamp casts strange shadows on his face, with its new scars over his eye and down his cheek. Kyle shifts very slightly, but it gets his attention.
"Kyle." Conner looks at him in that slightly odd way he has that Kyle really doesn't know how to interpret. "Let me guess; you're wondering what all this fuss is about."
He nods. He's still a little bit shy around the man, who is after all from the various rumours he's heard flying around, anything from a great leader to a prophet or even a man who is going to single-handedly win them the war. And the man who stole Marcus' life, a little voice in the back of his head adds nastily.
Conner breaks out in an uncharacteristic smile, though it's not exactly friendly, like he's forgotten what it's meant to look like. "The mission this afternoon was to destroy the machines' forces sent to retake this area and rebuild their base. And we succeeded." There is a note of vicious triumph in his voice.
Kyle knew it had to be something good, but this is very very good. He smiles too, happy and excited. He talked to enough of the Resistance fighters here, not to mention Conner himself, to know what the plan is; with the base gone and the reinforcements gone, they can try and take over Skynet's resources and factories, and start to build for a proper war.
"We should have a month or two before the machines send more," Conner continues. "So we'll be getting busy in the meantime."
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Kyle asks, trying not to seem too eager. But surely they'll need every man they can get for this big push. Surely John Conner will let him be useful, will let him fight. But his hopes are smashed as quickly as they arose.
"No," comes the reply. Conner scowls. "You aren't going to be here."
Kyle experiences a rush of sudden confusion. "Where else would I be?"
"You're going to one of our bases in the National Park in Utah. Kate suggested it and I agree. You're too young to fight, and there's nothing else for you here."
"Utah!" Kyle spits it out, angry as hell. He came all this way to join the Resistance and they're sending him on to some base in the middle of nowhere! "You can't send me away! I've been fighting for my life for years; I'm not too young for this war!"
Conner glares at him. "This is not open to negotiation. You are going to Utah where you'll be safe. That is what is going to happen."
Kyle bares his teeth at him. "I don't have to stay here. Me and Star did just fine until now, and if you don't want us..."
"No!" Conner cuts him off quickly. "No way." And there's that weird look again. What's got the guy so interested in him? He's known him, what, a month or two? Kyle doesn't trust him in the slightest, which kind of conflicts with the whole hero-worship thing he had going on for the first few weeks. "You're going to a safe place if I have to tie you up for the whole journey."
Kyle bristles. The fuck is Conner up to? What makes him care so much about one person's safety out of so many? He can't be sentimental; he's never struck him as the type. Maybe – and he's learned to be suspicious of everyone in a world where nothing is fair and fair play certainly doesn't exist – the guy's got a thing for him, wants to fuck him. He knows about sex, he's not stupid, even though given the circumstances of his life it's not as though he's ever done anything with the knowledge. And there were a couple of magazines he found lying around one of the 7/11s in Los Angeles, with pictures of naked women in them. And once he found one with some men in as well.
"So you're just kidnapping me?" he says hotly. "Whisking me off like the machines did! Well fuck, looks like the glorious Resistance isn't everything I'd heard it was."
"If you knew what I knew about the future and your place in it... you'd thank me," Conner tells him, as if hearing he's basing all this on one of his crazy prophecies is going to reassure him. Maybe his visions of the future tell him Kyle's going to be his fuck-buddy or some such shit, doesn't make it anything more than wish fulfilment, and certainly doesn't mean Kyle's going to let it happen. He doesn't trust seers and visions or anything he can't put his hands on.
"Transport leaves in the morning," Conner continues, "0800 beside the first-aid tent. Kate'll wake you, and if you and Star aren't there, there'll be a chopper out looking for you. Come back in a couple of years and thank me."
Kyle turns around and stalks out. What else can he do but go along with Conner's little plan? With an aching stab of emotion he suddenly misses LA desperately, tough and hard place though it was. It was home, at least, and he was in control of his life. Not here.
Star rejoins him, lacing her fingers with his. She'll come with him, he knows. Family sticks together out here.
"We have to leave here in the morning," he tells her. "The Resistance is sending us to Utah."