God does not play dice with the universe.
Not only does God play dice with the universe, He doesn't even let us see the numbers.
It was, John Connor decided, the worst family vacation ever. From the second seat of the four-wheel-drive passenger van, he stared out the dusty window, watching the barren landscape roll by. They'd turned off U.S. Ninety-five a few minutes ago, and were traveling maybe thirty miles an hour down a dirt road in the Nevada desert, approaching a little-used part of the huge Nellis Air Force Reservation. The windows were all up, and the air conditioning was struggling to keep the oven-like heat out of the vehicle. To his mother, who was driving, he said, "I thought we were meeting this guy in Vegas."
The 'guy' was one of his Uncle Derek's shadier contacts, a dealer in high-priced illicit goods and services who was presently brokering an offer from, not one, but a pair of crooked FBI agents - men, Derek's contact had hinted, who had big gambling debts to cover. The bent Feds were offering up law enforcement's complete file on the Connors – not a copy; they claimed to be able to lay hands on or destroy every scrap of evidence, documentary or physical, that the government had collected on the Connor 'terror cell' in the past twenty-odd years, from witness lists to spent shell casings. If these men could really ransack the evidence locker and file cabinet, so to speak, and wipe out all official memory of them, it would bring the investigation and manhunt to a stumbling halt, and the Connors would have a whole lot more room to breathe for a while. It was a dream come true, provided they could meet the men's price – and they weren't walking into a trap. The meeting was set for six o'clock the next evening, and they'd planned to get there early and reconnoiter.
His mother peered over the steering wheel through the van's dusty windshield. "Just a little detour."
"We were a mile from the city limits when you turned off. That was an hour and a half ago. Where are we going?"
"I've got a place here I want to check on."
John looked to Cameron, sitting beside him, but she stared back, giving away nothing. He noticed that her skin bore a light sheen. Hot enough in here to make a cyborg sweat, how about that. In the shotgun seat, his uncle Derek sat slumped, apparently dead to the world: no help there. "Mom. You've got caches all over. What's so special about this one?"
"It's not just a weapons stash. It's an underground shelter. It's got food and water, a library, lots of things."
He felt his jaw muscles jump. "Someplace to run to on J-Day."
"If we're close by, right. I've got a few more, places we've been or might go." She stopped at a faint fork in the sketch of a road. "Don't worry. We'll be in the hotel tonight. We're just so close, I wanted to make sure it's still secure."
Cameron said, "Are we there yet?"
"Shut up." She took the right-hand track headed towards the mountains.
Derek spoke up. "You sure we're going the right way?"
"No. But I think I am." She looked at her son in the rearview. "We're not lost, it just isn't easy to find this place. Another reason to come here, so I can get a GPS fix on it."
"Why didn't you do that when you set it up?"
"Because there was no such thing. No smart comments. I don't need any help to feel like a fossil."
At least the sun was behind them and headed down, he thought. It should cool off pretty quick. When they went back, they'd probably be retracing their path in the dark. But they wouldn't get lost, at least; Cam would remember every turn and leg of the trip.
A sweaty eternity later, they reached a spot where the track bent at the base of a low ridge, and the van slowed to a stop. John could feel the temperature rising inside the car just from sitting and idling. He looked at his mom. "Now what?"
"It's just on the other side of the ridge. I think." She unbuckled and got out of the car, with Derek following. She stared up the forty-five-degree grade. "Come on. You should all be able to find it if I'm not with you."
The rise turned out to be more dune than outcrop, with knobs of stone poking out of the slithery sand at intervals. They trudged up the slope, their feet sinking in and leaving little avalanches below them with every step, until they reached the top.
Derek scanned the downward slope in front and the gully below. There wasn't a sign of man anywhere. "Where is it?"
"Other side, where the land starts to rise again. I left a marker, just a rusty old wheel and tire half-buried in the sand. Nobody'd pick it up."
"Well, what if they did anyway?"
"If they tried, they'd find out the tire is filled with concrete. It didn't go anywhere." She brought a small pair of sport glasses to her eyes and looked across the little valley. "I see it," she said, not quite hiding her relief; John figured, after so many years, she might have been less sure of her memory than she let on. "Let's go." She took three steps down the slope and froze.
At the bottom of the opposite slope a hundred yards away, a greenish light flickered and went out. A dust-devil rose and spun away. The flicker returned, stronger.
John swallowed. "Derek. Is that-"
"How should I know? I never saw one from the outside."
"I've only seen departures," Cameron said. "This is different."
They all scrambled back over the ridge and peeked over. The flicker was now strong enough to assume a faint spherical shape in the bright sunlight. Derek split a look between John and Cameron. "Someone knew we'd be coming here." He glanced down at the van, then reached behind him and drew his pistol. Cam and Sarah did the same, making John feel like a stupid kid for being the only one not armed.
The ball of light was much brighter now, with streamers of energy flickering and waving around it like a Tesla coil. For a moment it became opaque, then flashed and disappeared, leaving spots drifting in John's eyes. Two figures, locked together, fell out of the blackened circle into a low embankment a step away.
"Skin or metal?" Derek asked tensely.
"I can't tell," Sarah said. "Why did they fall out of it like that? Cameron?"
"I don't know," Cameron said, eyes locked on the visitors. "They're not fighting."
Nobody asked John's opinion about anything. The four of them lay prone with just their eyes showing over the ridgetop, studying the distant figures as they stood up. "They're looking around," John said, mostly to be contributing.
"Looking for us?" John's mother tightened her grip on her Glock.
"One of them's looking at the sky," Derek said.
"This isn't right," Cameron said.
The two bubble travelers turned towards each other as if speaking. The taller one reached for the other's hand and held it, then slipped an arm around the smaller one's waist.
"They're human." John stood.
Cameron grabbed a fistful of his shirt and pulled him back down. "John. They're wearing clothes."
"-out, Jack!" The two figures thudded into the sand.
"Oof!" The dark-haired man with the patch over his left eye clutched at his companion and glanced around. "What the hell just happened?"
"I saw the control panel activate as you stepped on the disc," the little blonde in his arms said. "Too late. Booby-trap, I suppose."
"Some nitwit who abandoned it in place without making sure it was secure, more likely." Jack released her, and they stood. As he brushed at his khaki shirt and cargo pants, he said, "A goddamned teleporter. If I'd known IO had something like that stashed in there, I wouldn't have brought a truck." He shielded his eye with a hand and glanced up the ridge across the gap. "Where are we?"
"I don't know. Tracking system's out. I can't locate the kids." The strain in his companion's voice told Jack what she thought of that. She turned in a circle, studying their surroundings. Then she looked up at the sky. "Jack. I don't think we went anywhere."
"Eh?" He glanced around. "Where's the warehouse complex then?"
"I don't know. But I recognize that landmark. And that one. This is right where the warehouse should be."
He looked all around him. There was no sign of destruction, just empty desert, as if the big fenced compound full of concrete-and-sheet-metal buildings had never been. If not a different 'where', then… Their surroundings had probably looked just like this in 1970. And 1870. And might in 2070, too, perhaps. "No, dammit, that doesn't make sense. Proscribed technology or not, if IO had a time machine, they'd have used it."
"If they had, would we know?"
"Damn right we would. They'd already rule the world."
She nodded. "The sun's in the same position, allowing for the time we were inside looking around. And…" She stared straight into the sun for a moment. "The inclination's the same. Doesn't that mean it's the same season? If I could see stars, I'd be more confident of that." She blinked. "Ambient temp and relative humidity are within a point of when we went in the warehouse, for what it's worth."
"Not much. Afternoon desert wouldn't change much." Jack cursed again. "Well, the nearest paved road's that way. Or not. But we've got to go somewhere."
"I don't think we should leave just yet."
"We can't stay." He patted the pockets of his cargo pants, taking inventory. "We're in the high Nevada desert, and I've only got one bottle of water."
"You could have mine. That's almost two."
"When did you top off?"
"You know me. About a minute before I tackled you. I could go without for years, if I had to."
"That's never going to happen again." He reached for her hand, pulled her gently to him, and circled her waist with his arm. He looked down on her from a twelve-inch height difference. "If that road is still there, it's a day's walk away. You might end up carrying me."
"To the ends of the Earth. But just listen a moment. I know we can't stay long, but could we stay seventeen hours?"
"What difference would that make?"
"Because I saw…" She glanced past his shoulder and stilled. "Jack. I just saw someone, up at the top of that ridge. A young man in jeans and a tee shirt. He stood up to look at us, and someone else pulled him back down. A girl."
"Weird place to neck. Then again, who knows? Maybe there's a shopping mall or a picnic shelter right on the other side." He turned to face the slope. "At any rate, we've got a ride. Just play it cool." He waved at their unseen observers. "Hey there!" He shouted, his voice echoing from the slope. "We're lost. Can you tell us where we are?"
"Jack, the girl has a pistol."
He paused, then continued waving. "Doesn't matter." He started across the narrow gap to the base of the other ridge, keeping his hands in sight. He didn't have to reach behind him to know his Smith and Wesson was still stuck in his waistband.
"He's coming straight at us." Derek cursed under his breath. "From now on, I'm not taking a trip to the grocery store without a rifle."
"There's one in the van," Sarah Connor said, "but you'd never get back with it in time. Besides, I think we should talk first."
"Come on, Cam." John stood again. "We're the ones they saw."
His mother looked up at him, face clouding. "John…"
"He's right," Derek said. "If you want to talk. They don't know we're here, so we provide cover. Don't go too far, John."
"I never do." He started down the slope with his pet killing machine at his side.
"Wait." Sarah Connor rose to join them. "Cover us."
"Three." Jack, still walking, eyed the ridge ahead and the people headed down to meet them. "How many more do you think there are?"
"One, at least," his companion said. "The woman spoke to someone as she was getting up."
"Yes. Probably the one out of sight, too, don't you think?"
He kept walking. The ground began to rise under his feet. "Yes. Easy does it, Anna. I don't want to hurt anyone just yet."
They met a third of the way up the slope. John stopped ten feet short, to stay above the newcomers; Cam and his mom moved aside to flank and to give Derek a clear line of fire. "We saw you arrive," John said. "We know where you came from."
The one-eyed man and the little blonde girl at his shoulder stopped as well. The man stuck his thumbs in his pockets. "Good. At least somebody knows what's going on."
Sarah said, "You don't know how you got here?"
"Not really." The scars keeping the eyepatch company on the left side of his face puckered as he squinted up at them. "But I'm pretty sure we don't belong here. My name is Lynch, John Lynch. This is Anna."
"Pleased to meet you." The girl was tiny, maybe five feet or so, and slender, with light blonde hair cut almost boy-short. John guessed she was his age, maybe a little younger; the man's daughter, maybe? She was watching Cam with a little frown, and John tensed a bit, wondering if she'd seen her in the future and was about to make a scene. But she didn't say anything, just kept an eye on her. It occurred to John that, aside from arriving in clothes, the two visitors were too clean, well-dressed and well-fed to be travelers from Derek's future world.
He decided to introduce himself as John Baum, to maybe learn some more about these people before risking anything. "This is Cameron. I'm-"
"I'm Sarah Connor," his mom said, "and this is my son John." Her right hand drifted towards her back.
Way to go, Mom, John thought with a tinge of resentment at being upstaged. Let's find out right away what side they're on and deal with them.
The man's face blanked. "Really." Something in his tone set off alarms. "John and Sarah Connor."
Cameron closed in, hands lifting. "What do you know-"
The little blonde disappeared from John Lynch's side and reappeared with her arms wrapped around Cameron. Cam spun and shrugged, trying to get free. Impossibly, the other girl held on, keeping the cyborg's arms pinned to her sides.
"Don't." John Lynch was pointing a pistol at his mother, who still had one hand behind her back; he'd drawn before she could reach her weapon, even though her hand had started from halfway there. She stepped in front of her son with her hand still at the small of her back, waiting for a chance.
Cameron swung her head forward and butted the girl's forehead with a pock like two bowling balls colliding. John looked for Cam's attacker to fall to the ground, dead or unconscious.
"Ow," the girl said, and held on as Cameron dragged her across the slope. "Jack," she called, her voice rising, "I don't know how long I can hold her..."
"When she gets loose, she'll kill you both," Sarah Connor said. "Throw the gun down."
"You're misreading the situation entirely," the man said. "If she can't hold her, she'll kill her."
John looked at the locked pair. Cam threw herself to the ground with Anna underneath her and rolled a short way downslope. The little blonde clung like a leech. Cameron started to rise, but Anna hooked a leg around Cam's knee and forced it to bend, bringing them back to the sand. Heat poured off them, making the air shimmer. He could hear Cam's inner works whining as she strained. And Anna…
His neck and forearms prickled as he watched the flesh seem to melt off the little blonde until the bones jutted, making her look like a picture from a concentration camp. She hissed through clenched teeth, "Jack!" She pressed the palm of her hand against the side of Cameron's head. Under the tight-stretched skin of her forearm, John saw something besides ulna and radius bones, something complex and artificial and scary.
Heart pounding, John looked past his mother at the man holding the gun on them. "What is it?"
"Twenty-millimeter carbine loaded with anti-armor rounds. Whatever your girl's skull is made of, it's not enough." The man suddenly twisted like a snake dancer as shots barked out and bullets kicked up the sand behind him. The gun never wavered. "Not working," Lynch said.
Sarah Connor's hand moved to her weapon, but John beat her to it, wrapping his hand around the frame and trigger guard. "Mom. Derek just shot at him. If they were here to hurt us they'd be doing it. Cameron," he called, "stand down. Before somebody gets hurt. Derek, hold fire." His mother gasped as he pulled the gun from her waist and held it up by the frame.
"Keep it." The man raised his gun to point at the sky. "But I do think some explanations are in order. All around."
Cameron and Anna were lying in the sand. Cam had quit struggling. John watched the deathly thin little blonde reinflate, seeming to gain fifty pounds in seconds. She untangled herself from the terminator and stood, flowing upward from the sand with easy grace. "Whew. Sorry about that. No hard feelings?" She offered a hand.
"No." Cameron rose and faced her. Instead of shaking Anna's hand, she grasped it by the fingers and stared at it, turning it this way and that. "Not organic. Unknown synthetic."
"Yours seems a little too real." Anna reached up to smooth down a torn flap of skin the size of a quarter on Cam's forehead, covering the gleaming alloy. "Does that hurt?"
"Can you fix it?"
"It heals itself."
"Wow." She brushed at Cameron's dusty hair, raising a cloud. "Fraid your hair's a mess, sweetie."
"Hair is hard to get right," Cam said.
"Doll," Lynch said, "are you okay?"
"No." Anna made a face. "I'm filthy. I've got sand in my undies. Ecch."
Sarah said, "What is she? A machine? She must be."
"Yep. I'm a cyborg." Anna slapped at the dirt on her clothes. "A cyborg from another dimension, I think."