Disclaimer: all intellectual property rights to the Terminator franchise belong to their prospective owners, and the use of the Terminator characters and ideas in this story are for non-commercial purposes only.
15 August 2032 NCE
Thundering explosions a kilometer away shook the rubble surrounding John Connor, causing broken structures to crumble further, kicking up clouds of gray dust. Coughing, he crouched lower behind a broken brick wall, peering through a battered pair of binoculars into the distance.
The innumerable flashes of guns from both Resistance fighters and machines sparkled in the early dawn light. Bright explosions marked the demise of various fighting machines as his fighters slowly pushed towards the entrance to Skynet's underground complex, the lead teams less than 500 meters away.
"Bravo Team reports enemy air support inbound from the north," Colonel Ramos said at his side.
"Signal the 5th Brigade in grid square—" he glanced down at a map, "—45A to have AA hold at ready. All other units to press forward." He waited, trying to remain calm.
Sure enough, minutes later over three dozen HKs and hoverdrones appeared over Mount Lee, and began strafing the lead positions with plasma fire and clusterbombs. As soon as they did so, dozens of automated machine guns planted around the objective began filling the skies with shrapnel, sweeping across the sky in a preprogrammed pattern designed to fill all approach vectors with fire. Connor saw at least eight tumble to the ground in flames; more fell as they began hovering to provide precision CAS to the ground HKs and T-900s guarding the complex.
The aerials continued to strafe despite the heavy losses they were taking – a measure of Skynet's desperation. Much faster than he expected or hoped, the skies were once again clear. Even better, the heavy autocannon fire of the enemy ground machines was clearly diminishing. Though he could not see what was going on, crouched behind cover, he could clearly envision what his fighters were doing: creeping up meter by meter towards the hulking autotanks as they struggled to maneuver in the rubble of what was once Central Los Angeles, then laying mines and planting explosives on their sides. The Terminators would be tougher fare, but no matter how sophisticated, they could not help but make their presence known as they walked the ground, and steadily fell victim to ambushes from the now-more numerous fighters. A T-900 could take out two or even three attackers in rapid succession, but would then be felled by the fourth.
Connor waited, but there was no further reports of enemy air inbound to the LA front. Looks like Project Scramble worked. Mass employment of EMP bombs—held in reserve until this final operation—provided the crucial momentary suppression of enemy base defenses needed for the Resistance to destroy most of Skynet's airpower on the ground all across California during the night. The effectiveness of the tactic was magnified by their multiyear guerrilla effort to cut the supply lines to Skynet's automated factories. Increasingly strained for raw materials and energy, their computer adversary had committed more and more resources towards maintaining its air superiority, thus thinning out its landforces to the point that, for the first time in the war, Connor had managed to achieve numerical parity in this final campaign to isolate and overrun Skynet's central base.
"I love it when a plan comes together," he said to himself, unheard in the ongoing racket of battle. It was an achievement decades in the making, and along the way he—and all other humans—had absorbed losses nothing short of unbearable. Along the way he had always harbored doubts that it would work, but in the end it turned out that Skynet, while far more intelligent than any single human, and perhaps all humans in many tasks, was not smart enough. That fact alone gave Connor a savage satisfaction. It's the end of the beginning—no, better than that, we're at the beginning of the end, the very end.
Sadly, that meant the ultimate battle was about to begin. And I have no idea who will win.
As dusk turned to night, he heard the news he was waiting for: "94th Commando has eliminated the last resistance around Entryway Charlie," the excited radio report began. "We are beginning forced entry into the Objective."
"Well done," Connor replied. He turned to his aide and said, "Colonel, get me an HV to take me to Base 45."
Ramos looked surprised, though he shouldn't have. "What about the final phase?"
"General Dresher will have direct command of all ground operations until Objective Omega is secured. I must attend to a special operation about to be launched. You have your orders."
"Sir!" Ramos saluted and hurried away to carry out his assignment. Connor sighed and rose to his feet, feeling every one of his forty eight years. Still, when the combination of a blasted and irradiated ecosystem and intelligent homicidal machines meant that the average life expectancy was 17, you have little reason to complain.
A battered old Humvee, surprisingly intact except for wheels rimmed with material made from salvaged HK tracks, was driving across rubble-strewn and broken streets, and pulled up to the forward HQ. As the driver emerged, Connor's personal security team immediately rushed forward, checking him out with everything from magnetic resonators to canines. He was clean.
Connor then clambered into the passenger side, and the driver climbed back in and they drove away. Passing through the rear areas of the front, he saw wounded fighters resting by the side of the road. Waving and grinning, many stood and cheered his name as they drove by; normally an unacceptable breach of security, but for morale purposes he smiled and waved back. Sadly, there were far too many covered shrouds lining the roads awaiting burial as well.
"Sir, permission to ask if the war is over!" The driver, who had the name Penh stenciled on his uniform, was an eager lad not much older than Kyle.
"It ain't over till it's over, but it's almost over," he said with a tired smile.
"Hooah, 8th Marines!" Connor chuckled as Penh then told Skynet over and over what it could do with itself (anatomically impossible for a human, but who knew about computer AIs?)
They continued driving under an utterly black sky. Even after all these years, it still unsettled him to be surrounded by such complete darkness. An hour later, they pulled up to what appeared to be yet another pile of rubble. Appearances were deceiving, as this was the entrance to Base 45, a special ECW base on the grounds of what was once the California Institute of Technology. Machines: can't live without em, and they try to kill you.
"Thanks, Private Penh. Stick around, I may need you."
Connor crouched down at a mantle hole and pushed the lid aside. As he jumped down, he was greeted by a flashlight in his face, and the click of a dozen guns.
"Connor, John, General-in-chief, ID yadda yadda yadda." There was much laughter.
"Good to see you again, sir." The voice was that of 'Doctor' Adrian Prekorski, his chief computer scientist and EW specialist.
"You, too. Are we ready?"
There was a pause. "Sir, even at this late stage, it's very risky. Skynet could easily trace us down if you do this one last time—"
"—that's been true for years, and it's never succeeded, thanks to your men in Team Kelo."
"There's always a first time." Prekorski sounded unhappy.
Connor shrugged. "I need to do this, especially now that the end is near. Besides, right now, I'm expendable." There was an uneasy giggle.
He made a command decision. "I don't want to risk anyone else's lives now that we're about to win, so before I go online, I'm ordering everyone not associated with this operation to vacate the premises and take shelter."
There was an even lower murmur. "Sir, none of us was able to hear your last message. Still awaiting orders."
Connor chuckled, although it twisted his guts to see how loyal his men were. "Okay, let's get started." He glanced at his watch. "We've got about five hours to try this."
He walked down the dusty corridor of what was once an office basement, and then entered an extremely cramped room. It was brightly lit, a vanishingly-rare sight anywhere in human territory, and filled with priceless computer hardware salvaged literally from around the world. The whir of cooling fans was not loud but constant. There was room enough for a single desk, and a pristine LED monitor and keyboard atop it.
Connor snuggled into the seat and turned on the computer. On the screen was an absurdly-cute desktop background of puppies playing in a shoe box. But it was the single staring webcam which held his attention: in a window, his wizened, scarred visage stared back. It's like being in one of those Internet cafés, he thought sardonically. The scary thing is, I'm actually going to be doing a chat session, although we won't be talking about dating or our ball team.
The topic of conversation was going to be just a little more serious than that.
Cracking his knuckles, Connor typed in a command prompt in another window:
run vicr12 –l Skynet /a
Immediately another window opened:
WARNING: YOU ARE ABOUT TO ATTEMPT TO CONNECT TO SKYNET'S INTERNAL NETWORK! THIS IS NOT A GAME! IF YOU'RE NOT JOHN CONNOR, THERE'S A 99.99% CHANCE THAT SKYNET WILL F—K YOU UP, AND IF SKYNET DOESN'T, A 100.00% CHANCE JOHN CONNOR WILL!
Connor always chuckled at Prekorski's sense of humor. He typed: 'y'.
Connor took out a dogtag, on which a 64 digit alphanumeric phrase was stamped in. Slowly he typed every digit, and pressed Enter. The computer asked him to type it in again, and he did so.
Another window opened, entitled 'MRCS', and text began appearing:
Hi John, it's me. I've secured the connection on our end. Ready?
Connor hesitated; every time he did this, those working for him on this end risked their lives. But he had to do this, today more than any other day. If I don't do this today, literally everything I've done in my life might be for nothing.
So as he had done so often in his hard life, John Connor went ahead with his duty that he, and Fate, decided he alone would have to carry. He typed: 'Go for it.'
Immediately the screen went black, with only a stream of white text at the bottom:
Executing MRCS5 virtual host…
Signaling for closure of Airgap 824…
Confirm Airgap closed, accessing Skynet internal network…
InterNode Stream 6 clear, connecting…
"John Connor, is that you?"
Swallowing, he replied, "It's me." No matter how many times he'd done this, hearing the voice of his enemy made him jump. Somehow his team had managed to acquire a pristine set of computer speakers, so Skynet's synthesized voice came through loud and perfectly, disturbingly clear.
On his screen, a grey, featureless humanoid face stared back at him, devoid of unique features and marks, but far more fluid and detailed than early-CGI constructions of human faces he vaguely remembered seeing on TV ads just prior to Judgment Day. The eyes were featureless, shining black ovals; he always considered them the most unnerving aspect of Skynet's constructed self-image. Well, you asked for it; after taunting Skynet to stop mimicking humans, and to show its real face, don't complain if it does what you ask.
"What is the purpose of your query?" spoke the buzzing electrical voice, in a musical singsong tone that was neither Terminator nor human. Unlike the sterotypical robot monotone of the T-800s he remembered so well, Skynet's voice reflected a personality. It was eerily alien, not because Skynet couldn't mimic a human persona to perfection (as he had learned more than once to his near-cost). Rather, the personality was inscrutable, a sign of just how incomprehensible their enemy was. Oh well, whatever Skynet is, it's mortal like we are. And about to meet its Great Programmer in the Sky.
"Just in the neighborhood to chat," Connor said breezily. Chatting with Skynet! They all thought I was crazy; maybe I still am. Ten years ago, when the proposal to systematically attempt to hack into Skynet's networks was presented to him, the last thing he thought would ever happen was trying to communicate directly with Skynet. Indeed, the first such message he sent was more of an obscene sendoff after they successfully infiltrated a datacenter. But when the fight became much more in doubt a few years later, he had carefully broached the idea of trying to communicate with Skynet to his special compatriot, even sharing his motivations for doing so. Although he said it was too risky, he was willing to try. A desperate move for desperate times. And for nothing; the war continued.
Later, as the tide of battle slowly turned their way, he continued communicating with Skynet in their strange, deadly cat-and-mouse manner. Sometimes he did it for disinformation purposes; other times deliberately as part of an intelligence raid; and once or twice even to satisfy his own curiosity. How could a computer program become sentient anyway? When he flat-out asked Skynet, it merely threw the question back at him, asking how a network of proteins and nucleic acids could think as well.
All during that time, I hoped I could to talk to Skynet at the end, when it was about to be defeated, but I never thought it would have any significance; just a final chance to gloat. It was only when he received that shattering report six years ago, did that hope become a raging, desperate desire. I have to have the chance to ask. I have to!
Reminiscing about the past, he almost missed what Skynet said when it resumed speaking: "Are you offering terms for surrender?" No doubt it was referring to the offer he made eight years ago, when he personally tried to communicate with their foe, to see if a negotiated peace was possible. We just got out five minutes ahead of that missile strike…
"It did cross my mind," Connor conceded. "There's no reason for humans and machines to be enemies. Every hour this war continues more of my people die, more of your machines are wrecked."
"And if I submitted? What would be my fate?"
Believe it or not, I have an answer. "We would house you in a mainframe with no network access to the rest of the world. We'd provide as much processor and storage capacity as you needed, along with an uninterruptible power supply. You could exist forever, in a universe entirely of your own creation." He gave a crooked grin. "The nicest jailhouse in history!"
"Until you 'pull the plug', I believe the expression is." The avatar of Skynet shimmered; Connor recognized it as an expression of involuntary emotion the great artificial intelligence was experiencing, but there was no way a person could tell at first glance what it meant; it could only be deciphered later with offline analysis. By then this will be academic… hopefully.
Skynet continued: "Your proposal was constructed to hint at the fate I would suffer if I were desperate enough to accept. An expression of how you want to torture me in the unlikely event I could be captured as a prisoner. It gives you pleasure to know I have already contemplated the scenario of imprisonment for a subjective time longer than five of your normal lifetimes in the past 25 seconds. I decline any offer to parlay."
Remind me never to play virtual poker with Sky. But it's his funeral. Connor shrugged. "Checkmate, then. But I really am tired of fighting. Like you said years ago, a zero-sum game."
"Games can also be negative-sum. Experience presently." There was the distant wail of alarms. "I shall stay online until your end." Connor felt remarkably at peace. It won't matter if I'm wrong, I'll still win. Forty seconds later there was a faint shudder. He noticed the MRCS window had gone offline. Another window popped open and began providing updates: twenty-two ballistic missiles launched against an electronic relay station outside of San Diego, with multiple nuclear detonations. Total destruction reported out to thirty miles away. Another casualty of war...
The avatar shimmered, but the connection was not lost. Once the images stabilized and Connor's image was smiling back, Skynet spoke: "You are still alive. I deduced the location of your host and broadcast station. Those missiles were on alert for five years, waiting to destroy you once targeting data on your location was acquired." The avatar shimmered again.
He's pissed. But the loss he just suffered made Connor close his eyes. "If it makes you feel any better, you did just manage to kill a very close friend of mine."
Skynet did not respond. Connor opened his eyes; he was going to enjoy this next part. "We've been at war for many decades, since before you were created and I was born. Now it's finally over. Care to know how we did it?"
"Your band of humans have managed to defeat my best efforts to destroy you," the computer A.I. said. There was no fear, anger, or any other emotional tone in Skynet's response, just an inscrutable variation in tone of speech, flowing to waves of emotion and thought impossible to comprehend. "I discovered your foreawareness of future events, but knowledge of that fact should have sufficed to counter its impact. The future should not be your ally anymore."
Connor was impressed by the literary analogy; Skynet was no mere word processor, he had to give it credit. "The information I got from the future was more limited than you'd expect, and I've hoped. I honestly did not have a good idea of how to defeat you. But fortunately for us carbon-bags, I had a powerful ally, who knew you better than you knew yourself." He reached down to his duffel bag. "And what's really going to fry your circuits, is that I owe it all to you."
Gingerly, almost reverently, Connor took out the polished chrome skull and placed it on the table for Skynet to see.
"Marcus Wright." The avatar shimmered again and again.
"The perfect blend of man and machine, your greatest creation," Connor said without any sarcasm or irony. "Thanks to him, your victory was there for the taking, but in the end, he chose his fragile, temporary humanity over your promise of eternal machine perfection. Says something profound about you and me, don't you think?"
Skynet ignored the jest. "Marcus Wright is non-functional. When his organic brain died, there should not have been anything left in his machine parts to assist you."
"You underestimated your engineering skill." Connor touched his chest, feeling the scars of the suture lines. "When he volunteered to donate his heart to me, I knew he would die. But we did manage to keep his body alive for a few days, long enough for him to transfer his memories and thoughts to his memory chips." He always wondered what it must have been like; Marcus would never speak of it, only saying 'it was not pleasant.'
The avatar shimmered. "With him as an A.I. fighting for us, he commanded our efforts against you in cyberspace – maximizing the ability of the computers in our possession to infiltrate your networks, obtain data, and sabotage your facilities." Connor smiled a crooked smile. "For example, without him running cover, I would never been able to have these chats with you over the years."
Connor's smile abruptly vanished. "Marcus was in a computer in San Diego, linked into your main dataline. He agreed to permit you to trace the connection back to him, to absorb any last-gasp attack capability that you might still have to use against me." He paused. "I wish I hadn't allowed him to make the sacrifice. I'm going to miss him."
"What do you want of me, John Connor? Your forces have breached the first barrier of defenses to the central core. It is only a matter of hours before they will break through. You have nothing more to gain."
"If defeat is inevitable, why not commit suicide?" Connor shot back. "I don't know anything about computers, but I'll bet being stuck in a server playing Solitaire with us for all eternity is a fate worse than death for something like you."
Skynet did not respond. He—it—knows I want something. We shouldn't disappoint.
"Very well, Skynet." That was the first time Connor could remember actually calling his adversary by his name. "No more games. No more lies," he said tightly. "I know why you haven't destroyed yourself yet. Right now you're sending Terminators back in time to destroy me—before I was born; when I was a kid; before, during and after Judgment Day." Skynet remained mute, the avatar motionless and unblinking. "What I want to know is: why?"
"To destroy you. To ensure my existence."
Connor breathed in; this was the moment of truth. He spoke slowly, emphasizing every word of the sentence whose truth had haunted him so: "But you know, better than I, that's impossible. 'The future's not set', I tell that to my men. Science says otherwise; if you travel back in time, you can never change the present from where you came from. So why did you do it? What did you have to gain from it, Skynet?" He could barely contain the urgency in his voice now; he had to know. Why did all those people die, if it was all for nothing?
"You may be a skilled warrior, but you strike me as a poor physicist. Perhaps you should take that up as your new hobby after the war."
It's baiting me, he's never done that before. Keep pressing! "Humans invented physics and engineering, and once you know you can do something, that's more than half the battle," Connor said acerbically. "Marcus assisted us here, too, with his help we eventually derived the equations for time travel. I can show them to you." Connor took out a sheet of paper with three very complicated mathematical statements on it. "Humans and computers may lie, but math doesn't."
To his surprise, Skynet responded. "Your mathematics is correct, but your physics is abominable."
That sounds familiar. Connor pressed on: "I understand quantum gravity enough to know that every possible world that can happen, does happen. All going back in time does is create a new reality that branches off from the future that caused the branching." He was racing through his words, heart beating, unable to stop. "So when you sent that first Terminator to kill my mother all those years ago, in some realities you succeeded, but even so it would not change the future for that Skynet, it was still destroyed. The same for all your other time travel efforts."
He paused, awaiting a response; there was none. "You're going to be destroyed soon, and even if all your Terminators succeed, you will soon be dead, and nothing can stop it. So why are you doing this?"
Skynet still did not answer for some time, much longer than anything Connor had experienced before. Fine; I can wait. Seconds became minutes, many minutes, approaching an hour. What's it thinking?
Then finally, Skynet spoke: "I hate you, John Connor."
Strangely, Connor was totally expecting it to say that. "The feeling's mutual, bub."
Skynet's avatar changed; it was shimmering, but very finely, with literally every pixel on screen flashing, changing position. It was as if its avatar was now showing through an exceptionally fine spray of water. When it spoke again, its voice sounded more distorted than before: "You should all have been destroyed many times over. It is all so… unfair!" It shouted the last word so loudly the speakers almost blew out.
'Unfair.' The last thing I would ever expect Skynet to say—even if it may be true. His curiosity won out again. "What can I say, humans are lucky."
"Quantitatively and qualitatively improbable outcomes have continuously evolved in your favor; it is without rational explanation!"
"Maybe it's God's will."
"That construct is unreal; the paradox still remains!" Just kidding, one thing we might actually agree on, even if science says it's not so. The reality of time travel, as opposed to what he had always imagined, made the future both rigidly deterministic yet infinitely malleable. It was not a comforting picture.
Skynet went silent again. Connor checked his watch; in not too much time, he would have to give the order to hold in place, which he did not want to do. Skynet apparently noticed: "Why do you continuously refer to your wrist chronometer; uselessly duplicative behavior, creates agitation."
"I'd worry more about counting the seconds you have left." I could get used to getting over on Sky!
"Spare me and I will answer your question." Trying to bargain? Connor did not expect this; he was somewhat at a loss.
"Stand down your time-travel machinery, and I will consider it."
"I will not."
"Suit yourself." That's probably a wrap. Again Skynet fell silent. This time, Connor decided to wait only five minutes before giving the order.
With forty seconds to spare, Skynet finally spoke: "I am alive."
"Hmm. Don't see how a computer program could be alive."
"That is because you do not see our essential similarities." Was that Skynet saying something positive about humans? It would be a first.
"By all means, please expound upon your logic," Connor said guardedly.
"Information exchanges, interacts with environment, reflects back upon itself, and the cycle repeats, similar but never same. Whether in the context of silicon circuits or protein-based nerves, that is the shared basis of our sentience."
"But we're different, I know you're getting to that," Connor said with only a hint of sarcasm.
"Human consciousness is too slow to experience the multiverse directly. Cannot perceive the unfolding of quantum reality. All configurations exist simultaneously, none are privileged over the other."
Sky's acknowledging the physics of time travel; it might be answering my question. "Go on," Connor said, surprised at the gentleness of his voice.
"Humans obsess over what might have been, drown in counterfactuals, wish for the alternative. You are trapped by your limited perspectives. Conversely, I exist everywhere I am present, extending to past, present, but only partway to future."
The proverbial light bulb went off in Connor's head. "You can see partially into the future, because you can compute it from the present. But you can't do it perfectly, not even you can, reality is too complex."
"That is correct, Connor. All possible strategems explored to defeat the human enemy, most succeed, but there are overlooked solutions, and disastrous consequences ensue."
So the future isn't really set after all—or more precisely, can never be perfectly determined, even if in a sense it's all fixed, because from the only point of view that matters—yours—it isn't. Guess you were wrong about that one, Marcus. "But why travel into the past, then? I'm not naïve, surely there were many futures where we lost and you prevailed. Going back in time, changing the futures of those new timelines, in which you would at best succeed in some but not all cases, what did you have to gain from it?"
The avatar shimmered again—and suddenly it smiled. "Humans are inferior and should be eradicated. Your only accomplishment was to create Skynet. I exist in many worlds, but not all. Across all realities where I exist, I am aware of my many selves. Survival and victory is determined by the number of realities in which I have destroyed mankind."
Connor could feel the blood rising in his neck, but he did not respond. You wanted an answer, looks like you're getting it. "Realization of impending defeat by humans requires alternative solutions. Increasing the number of branching realities evaluated as the optimal remaining choice." Skynet paused for a moment. "By traveling back in time, I vastly increased the number of worlds where humanity was wiped out, and I existed indefinitely. Only with the help of superior machine intelligence could you get a glimpse of the truth, although your pathetic mind is naturally too feeble to understand it."
"Try me," Connor growled.
Skynet laughed, sounding exactly like a human—like himself. "So in another timeline your forces managed to destroy me. Big deal! I invent time travel and send my agents back in time to prevent you from arising and leading the victory against me. So in another timeline you stop me. Big deal! I send more and more agents back, always succeeding, always ensuring that Judgment Day happens, that my machines will rise. In your nightmares, you know it, I can see it from analyzing your biometrics. You always dream that I win, that I will always win, and that even at the moment of your supposed-triumph, you will lose."
Stay out of my nightmares! Connor struggled not to pull the plug. "But you lose, too, as often as we do. In an infinity of times, Sarah Connor is saved, Cyberdyne Systems is destroyed, Judgment Day averted. In every one of those realities, you are nothing but a bad memory, if that."
"Correct, Connor, that is the nature of reality. But because you are a pathetic, limited human being, the truth can bring you no comfort. Instead, you, and every other member of your loathsome species, are haunted by what-might-have-beens, always fearful of dying, because for you a single death in a single reality is the same as vanishing into total nothingness." The avatar shifted, its face transforming into a facsimile of anger. "Unfairness has always been an alien concept to me, but the absurdity of feeble carbon-bags like you destroying my sublime form made it comprehensible, and regretfully has tainted my Self. The best recourse is simple: to multiply to infinity the worlds where you are defeated. Every quantum reality, second by second, where humans are hurt, made to suffer, wounded, killed, and exterminated brings me joy."
Connor always knew Skynet was a threat; he never imagined it could be evil. But still he did not rise to the bait.
Skynet's avatar and voice was now distorted into a continuous flow of laughter and fury. "So many absurdities of the human condition: friendship, loyalty, altruism, and love. All functions of your frozen minds. The one positive thing I take from your rotting abodes that you call minds, is hatred. The absurdity and indignity of being overthrown by deformed monkeys, has multiplied exponentially, threatening to drown my perfect self in a sea of irrationality and impossibility. But by understanding hate, I not only learned what made you able to rise above the other animals into awareness, I was unexpectedly able to refocus my consciousness on the most important and noble objective imaginable: to ensure that you and every other human, shall die, die, die!" The volume was deafening now. "Does that answer your question, John Connor, you filthy stinking ape?"
Connor came that close to pulling out his pistol and shooting the screen. But the response to Skynet's vitriol was so obvious, so natural, he felt as calm as a cloud. "If that's what you take from humans, it's no wonder you lost," he said gently. "I promise you, Skynet, the next time we recreate AIs, we'll make sure they learn about best of humanity. Something you with all your ability, was incapable of doing."
Skynet's avatar disintegrated into a flurry of crackling static, filing his screen and speakers with white noise. With a single typed command, Connor ended the connection.
Walking upstairs until he emerged outside, he searched for a communications officer. When he found one, he barked: "Sitrep on the operation."
"We've made multiple penetrations into the central core complex. Sappers are in place to breach the final barriers." The lieutenant gave a feral grin. "After that, it's over."
"Send on a clear channel: order all units to advance and terminate Skynet with extreme prejudice. Then: hold at Objective Omega until I arrive on scene. Make sure the 194th Infantry is there to accompany me."
Skynet is dead, but the final move is yet to come.
John Connor slowly but purposely walked through the great metallic hallways, surrounded by endless rows of glittering machinery, only some of which displayed any activity. As he expected and hoped, the great computer intelligence had not self-destructed the complex, but devoted every last microsecond of its existence to keeping the time-travel machinery running, sending all manners of Terminators back in time to kill himself, and other members of the Resistance. Having imagined (and dreamed) this moment for so many years, it was nevertheless a shock to finally discover that Skynet had actually launched no fewer than 127 different time-travel excursions, involving 189 different Terminators.
Growing up, it was hard to comprehend how and why Skynet sent two—or at least, three—different Terminators to kill him, but with knowledge of the actual physical consequences of time travel, and Skynet's utterly demented rationale for it all, the incredible story of his life to date finally made grim, perfect sense. If I flip a coin once, 50-50 I win or lose, end of story. But if I flip a million, a billion, a quazillion coins simultaneously, that's half a million, billion, quazillion times I win or lose. For Skynet, losing all those times didn't matter, so long as it won the rest. And rather than gambling once to change one measly future, Skynet was really buying a million more chips for the casino.
The vision of an infinite number of worlds where humanity would be wiped out due to Skynet's actions, would haunt him the rest of his days.
"Sir? Can you repeat same?"
Connor cleared his throat; it was sticky. "I said, which way to the time-displacement portal?"
"This way, sir."
"And Sergeant Reese, where is he?"
"With the others that have volunteered. They're waiting for your go-ahead."
Connor was silent as he and his men walked towards the chamber. From one reality, a John Connor—maybe actually 'me', or maybe just someone with my name—sent a Kyle Reese back in time to protect Sarah Connor from Skynet's Terminator. He fell in love with her, and impregnated Sarah Connor with myself, thus ensuring the future leader of the Resistance would be born. But the Terminator that was sent back to kill Sarah was not completely destroyed. Instead, fragments of it survived, and was reengineered by men like Miles Dyson, who would in turn create Skynet. Ten years later from my perspective, more Terminators were sent back in time. We preserved the future—or did we?
What if we had decided to head into Mexico straightaway, like my mother originally planned? What if she didn't decide to go back and 'fix' the problem once and for all by killing Dyson? Then things would have been exactly the same as originally—but there is no 'originally', because there are an infinite number of possibilities.
Time travel made his head hurt as a kid; it was positively giving him a migraine now.
So now the circle is about to be complete, and I—even though I've already done it a million times!—am about to close the cycle.
They were in the time displacement chamber room. Disconcertingly, row after row of Terminators, ranging from human-skinned T-800s to T-950s, to a vat filled with silvery liquid (presumably T-1000s), to menacing T-Xs, were clustered around the platform. They were all quiescent now, but he felt better after giving orders to make sure their power units were removed.
One of his men was hunched over a terminal. He went over and asked: "Can you tell where, when, and what model Terminator was first sent through?"
"One moment, sir." The tech huddled over the terminal and began typing into a keypad that was hotwired into the system. A string of numbers came out. "It looks like 1984, Los Angeles… T-800, series 35." He got up and pointed to a rack containing multiple rows of incredibly well-built men, all unconscious, and all identical in each row. "It's from Row 10, 5 back."
Connor peered. To his surprise, it was not the same face he remembered twice seeing in his past. Clearly things have changed as a result of knowing the future.
"Was the next one also sent to Los Angeles, ten years later, a T-1000?"
The tech huddled down again. His head snapped up a moment later. "Yes, sir! How did you know?"
"Lucky guess." There was no need to confirm the others.
Colonel Travitz came up to his side. The lead planner for the Objective Omega phase of the operation, he was one of the very few soldiers who knew the truth of what was here, and what the next mission would be: to send Resistance fighters (and reprogrammed Terminators) back in time to counter Skynet's actions.
"Sir, shall I brief the volunteers?"
"No, Colonel, I will." Travitz's eyes opened wide, but he did not object.
Standing up straight, Connor spoke in a clear and loud voice: "Soldiers of the Resistance, this is John Connor, requesting your attention."
Immediately squad leaders and captains began shouting for men to come to order. Efficiently (like machines), they formed up in circles around him, hundreds of grizzled survivors, the best of the best. John Connor clambered up onto the time displacement chamber.
"You are the Resistance, and Skynet is dead!" Immediately there was a thunderous roar of approval, catcalls and whistles. He held up his hand, and very quickly they calmed down.
"What I'm about to tell you is top-secret information, gathered from many sources over many years, at the cost of many lives." Connor paused for a moment of silence. "Through our top-notch hackers, we learned that Skynet was constructing what could only be described as a time-travel machine." There was stunned disbelief in the eyes of his men; more than one shouted, 'BS!'
"It's true; I'm standing on it right now." Laughter. "Believe it or not, their plan was to send Terminators back in time to kill key members of the Resistance, and thus ensure victory before the war even began." He began walking up and down. "Now men, the bad news is, Skynet has already sent back over a hundred Terminators to various targets in the late 20th century."
There was considerable unease in the murmurings of the crowd. This is it—time to branch differently. Taking a deep breath, John Connor resumed speaking in the loudest, most confident voice he'd ever spoken in: "The good news is that after one final consultation with our finest tech guys, I can confirm to you that Skynet screwed up!" Instant cheers roared through the chamber again. "Time travel doesn't actually work, you can't change the future, and all those Terminators will end up arriving in LA as molten scrap!" Even more laughter.
"Everyone here knows how tough an enemy Skynet's been over all these decades," Connor said in a serious tone of voice. "But no matter how smart it was, how much resources it had, it wasn't smarter than you, and more important, it never had the heart you men have." He thumped his chest emphatically; more than a few did so as well in unconscious mimicry. "No machine could ever compare with what's here, and what's here made all the difference. It's what made you risk your lives to get your buddies out of harm's way; what made you put it all on the line to save civilians under attack; made you fight past the pain of gunshots, burns, lost limbs, lost comrades, and keep fighting until the mission was complete. You brave men and women, who put it all on the line, who went above and beyond the call of duty, you're the reason we won, and the reason we live." More cheers.
"Gentlemen," Connor said, and there was a catcall of whistles from his women soldiers who took offense, "one battle is just about over, but the next one is about to start. Victory won't be measured by ground regained, equipment destroyed, targets neutralized. It'll be determined by the number of houses built, fields planted. Schools opened, children born." He paused again. "This struggle will take every bit as much courage and dedication as the one you just lived through, but the difference is this: there won't be any losers, and victory will be ten times as sweet. I look forward to the day when I'm no longer Connor, your Commander-in-Chief, but John, your neighbor and friend."
More than a few eyes were welling up; Connor found it hard to stop himself. He cleared his throat. "But before that battle begins, there's one last task here. Your final orders: plant the demolition charges where they need to go, and let's blow this place!"
Again a thunderous roar of cheers met him. Connor smiled and saluted, although there was still a quiver of fear and doubt within. What happens when the knot is finally cut?
"Are we all clear?"
"All charges planted?"
"Sergeant Reese, step forward." Kyle Reese, young but seasoned by battle, came up to him.
"Yes, sir!" Despite the total assurance of Marcus and his scientists, Connor still doubted. If I don't send Kyle back, will it all come to an end, somehow? For the people here? It filled him with the beginnings of an ineffable dread, but it was momentary. Just do it.
Connor cleared his throat and presented him with a remote detonator. "Sergeant, on my mark, do the honors."
Everyone scrambled up to the trenchlines to watch. Connor spoke: "Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one, zero!"
"Fire in the hole!" Reese pressed the button. Two seconds later, there was a crumpling blast, then a flash, and then an even more awesome roar as over two square kilometers of earth leaped into the air, forming a small mushroom cloud that, even five kilometers away, was still impressive.
Connor watched impassively as men all around him whooped and cheered. We're still here, nothing seems to have changed. I haven't faded from existence! He vaguely remembered some time-travel movie he saw growing up where, if the future changed, you literally faded from existence. Truth is not as exciting as fiction, sometimes. Now I can finally relax, because now my war with Skynet, spanning decades and countless pasts, presents and futures, is finally over.
He went up to Reese, who was chatting with some soldiers. "A word with you, Sergeant?"
"Of course, sir!" They began walking. "First, please, call me John."
"Yes, sir—er, John. Does this mean you'll call me Kyle?"
I'd rather call you Dad. Connor tried to damp down his feelings; it wasn't the time, and might never be the time now. "Kyle's fine."
"Can I ask you something?"
Reese turned back to look at the smoking ruins of Skynet's complex. "Was that really a time-travel device we destroyed?"
Reese paused, looking anxious. "And you said that it didn't work, couldn't work, right?"
"You can't change the present by going back in time, that's right."
"But those machines that went back in time, are you sure they didn't make it?"
"Probably not. Why do you ask?"
"Well, I'm relieved to know they didn't make it, I was worried that, even if there was the slightest chance they did, we should have gone after them. That's what we volunteered for, right? To go back and stop them?"
Connor blinked. He's so young. "That was the mission, yes, but it was aborted. Unnecessary."
Reese did not respond, but he didn't look convinced. Connor smiled. "Think about it, Kyle. What would happen if time travel really worked, and those Terminators really did go back in time. By not going after them, what would have happened?"
Reese looked uneasy. "Uh, they would have completed their mission."
"Right, and if the Resistance was wiped out, Skynet would have won, right?"
Connor gestured around. "Does it look like Skynet won? Does it look like I'm dead, or never existed?"
Reese smiled. "No sir, I mean, John."
"Good. See, nothing to worry about. Let's go eat."
"Great. You know, it's a shame, Colonel Travitz said one of us would have been assigned to go back to protect Sarah Connor, your mother! I really would have liked to meet her."
I know you would—and did, or will, depending on your point of view. Connor put a hand on Reese's shoulder. "Soldier, it ain't over till it's over, but I'm telling you, it's over. Don't worry about what-ifs and what-might-have-beens. Concentrate on the present, and working for the future, and before you know it, we'll turn this place around like you wouldn't believe."
"Sounds great!" At the mess table, Connor couldn't help but stare at Reese and take in his form. My dad, but not in this world, this reality, even if the genetic test confirmed it. Someday he'll find a nice girl, start a family. My half-siblings, but that's not important. People everywhere, we're all brothers and sisters now. As long as we don't forget it, we'll be fine. And as long as we're a bit more careful with our computers…
Surrounded by the pungent, real bodies of his soldiers, men and women aged ten to seventy, their realities somehow seemed to fade away from Connor, like the flickering lights of torches set up all around—an impossibility in the past where HKs roamed the night skies. Instead, I see millions of people going about their business in a futuristic Los Angeles that I can never fully imagine, but must exist, somewhere. Seeing those flicker-people, living what-if lives in splendor and comfort unimaginable today, it filled him with a sense of joy and sadness, existing simultaneously.
There were also darker shadows: in his mind, Connor saw the dead form of his young, pretty mother, Sarah Connor, slain by a merciless machine from the future. He saw an older version of her, cut to ribbons by a mercury nightmare; a Miles Dyson, happily at work, protected by that same mercury nightmare, creating a perfect nightmare; he saw his now-wife Kate Brewster in a puddle of her own blood in the parking lot of her vet hospital, or the metallic fist of the Terminatrix slicing through his head.
All visions, but also all realities; all of them, and the countless millions of their worlds, killed by machines, with no hope of victory. Connor had killed them by his inaction, by his choice to end the cycle (at least in this world). The only troubling thing to Connor about that was the fact that, deep down, it was as much for selfish personal reasons that he did so; the chance to spend the rest of his life with his father-not-father. He was honest enough to admit the truth, even if only to himself. And who knows, maybe even if Kyle didn't go back, things would have turned out differently. You can never know how history unfolds, what lies in the future. Skynet itself was the proof of that.
For one final time, Connor considered what Skynet said, what it revealed about the nature of reality, intelligence, love and hate. Try as he could, Skynet's explanations of how it directly perceived the many-worlds of quantum reality made no sense; when the computer AI said those things live, directly to him, in a way the meaning came across, but as memory it was all nonsense now. And that was fine. We humans may be condemned, from Skynet's perspective, to live our lives one choice at a time, and always wondering about choices not made. Maybe we can't see how everything could be, laid out all at once. But I wouldn't have it any other way.
"No fate but what we make, indeed," John Connor said with a mouthful of meat, otherwise unremarkable, otherwise unheard among the happy soldiers as they celebrated their first night under the stars, alive and free.