Four Seconds (Give or Take a Nano)
Deslea R. Judd
Disclaimer: Characters not mine. Situations mine.
Fandom: Sarah Connor Chronicles
Characters/Keywords: John, Cameron, Alison.
Timeline/Spoilers: After Born To Run
Summary: Unpicking a timeline is difficult. You have to be precise.
Note: Written for Lisa in the Support Stacie auction
More fic: http://fiction.deslea.com
John has never tried to wrap his head too far around time travel.
He asked Cameron about it once, but she only got as far as explaining that new branches were created whenever someone from the future came back and intervened. A vision sprang up before him of dozens and dozens of branches on a tree, and at that point he told her to stop. He was on enough of a roller coaster coping with his own timeline, without dealing with dozens of others.
He knows enough, though. He's picked up enough over the years to trouble him for centuries.
For one thing, it's an inexact science. Jesse jumped backwards and sideways – onto a similar, but not identical timeline. In his current situation – separated from his mother and from Cameron – that fact alone scares the hell out of him. There is no guarantee any of them are on the same timeline anymore.
For another, no one is being careful about time travel anymore. Maybe they were, once. Maybe there was one moment when the technology was able to be controlled, The way he heard it growing up, he found the newly-developed time travel machine, sent two protectors to follow Skynet's attackers, and then destroyed it. He put his hand to the switch, held it long enough to do what needed to be done, and then let go.
But in that timeline or another one, Skynet and John Connor both became reckless. God only knew how many people went through, each creating their own branches. God only knew how many renegades were out there down the centuries, both human and machine. Was a cyborg giving Einstein the secrets of time travel or of cybernetics? Was another Jesse, another human enemy his mother would never suspect, infiltrating the gun runners of Nicaragua, ready to kill him as a boy when their paths crossed? And with time travel now a revolving door, how would anyone ever know?
"Penny for your thoughts."
John forces himself not to flinch. "Not sure they're worth that much," he says, turning to face the Cameron-copy they call Allison. "Where is everyone?"
"Dunno," Allison says, dropping down beside him on the cot, tucking her feet up beneath her bottom like a little girl. "Hunter-killer patrol or something." She is looking at him with the same hero-worship she's had for him ever since he spun his bullshit story about being kept in a Skynet work camp for years and that's why no-one's ever seen him before.
Which one? Well, he doesn't know. He was only a kid. Where? He doesn't know that either. Some guy got him out and died in the process. His remarkably good health and lack of scars and barcode he explained with a tale of medical experiments. There are holes in his story, but he knows enough about the work camps from Derek and Cameron to convince them.
It's so easy to believe that this adoring girl is Cameron. Except Cameron doesn't adore. She'd lay down her cybernetic life, but she doesn't adore. This girl lays down her soul (and her body) with the hunger of an orphan in a hard old world.
But then, he rationalises, she isn't the only one. These last few days he has indulged every fantasy he can think of, possessing her as Cameron could never be possessed. The problem is that she is exactly like her, and nothing like her at all.
But it passes the time. Buys him time, actually, to get his head around where he is and what it all means. Time to relish a life where he is not responsible for the world. In this world, that's Kyle's job – and for the moment, as far as John is concerned, he can have it.
He knows that won't keep. Sooner or later the landscape will change. Catherine or Cameron will change it, wherever they are. After all, that's what they came here for. And there's his mother in the equation, too, trying in the past to prevent this future. He no longer believes he can imagine the exact impact of any of those factors, but *something* has to change. In time, a picture will emerge.
But for the moment, given that Cameron currently bears a striking resemblance to Cromartie and he's sharing his bed with a Cameron-dopelganger, he figures he can be excused for taking whatever relief he can find. Reality's a bitch.
"So," she says, "do you wanna?"
She's funny, this girl Allison. Sexually forward, certainly. In the shortened lifespan of the tunnels, no one has time to be coy. The to-ing and fro-ing of high school, the dance of flirting but not quite committing - no one does that here. Sex starts young, and if the parents mind, they don't worry too much about trying to stop it. Assuming they're alive to start with.
At the same time, though, common law marriage is the norm. By the early twenties people are usually shacked up with their life partners, however short that life might be. He realises that he greatly underestimated Jesse's importance by thinking of her as Derek's girlfriend. In the future, a liaison of any duration would make her his wife.
He realise that she's waiting for an answer. And that if he sits here thinking about it for much longer, he's going to go mad.
"Sure, I wanna," he says, matching her inflection. Fond, and sorta coy, but not really. Maintaining an illusion of courtship. She's his first, although Riley came close, and he's doing something new to totally new rules.
She stretches out, holds out her hand, and he takes it and follows.
Another thing he knows is that timelines can collapse on themselves. They can merge.
He doesn't know when Cameron figured out that Kyle was his father. She didn't seem to, back when he'd asked her. But she knew later. Perhaps it was just guesswork - comparing his shared blood type with Derek against the fact that Kyle's paths crossed with Sarah at the time of his conception.
However she came by the knowledge, she knew it by the time Jesse was around. Derek had put aside his hatred of Cameron enough to start quizzing her about time travel. Maybe about the time he started to wonder if Jesse was *his* Jesse. He would ask her about it late at night, when he thought John and Sarah were out of the way.
Sometimes John listened in through the vent in his room. It was about the time he was wondering about Riley, too.
And then one time, John got more than he bargained for.
"But there must have been an original John, right?" Derek was asking. "One who wasn't my brother's. Before he met my brother and sent him back."
"Yes, there was. No one knows who his father was. Probably a boyfriend of Sarah's. She had one when the first T-101 went back to kill her."
John's eyes had opened very wide at this. Derek appeared to have taken it for granted that there was some kind of pure, original John before Kyle intervened. John had taken his paternity as a fixed universal truth. But of course, it had to be that way, didn't it? There had to be an untainted timeline to create John before time travel.
"It would be interesting to know how John became what he became with Sarah as an ordinary Mom."
"Skynet intelligence suggests that she lived in a tough neighbourhood as a single mother. Original John grew up fighting gangs."
John tried to imagine being ready to lead a resistance from the ordinary experience of a tough ghetto kid. No drills in the Darien jungle, no gun runners in Nicaragua, no Enrique and all the guys like him. He couldn't do it.
"Okay. So then John sent my brother back, and Kyle became his father, and Sarah became Hard As Nails Mom."
"Not the first time. The original John would have been careful not to send Kyle back until after Sarah conceived. Otherwise John would not exist. But then Kyle died, and Sarah convinced herself that Kyle was John's father."
"And then the next time John sent Kyle back before he was conceived? Believing Kyle was his father and sending him at the right time to become his father?"
"Yes. John has been Kyle's in every timeline since."
John's mind reeled at the implications.
Derek was still talking. "So there are at least two timelines where John wasn't Kyle's."
Sounds. Cameron getting up from her chair. Pacing. "Not necessarily. There's virtually no difference between John believing he is Kyle's and really being Kyle's. If the intervention does not substantially change the future, the timeline will split, but it will merge again. If it's really minor, it might not even split at all."
"Well, the cyborg that attacked me at Dr Sherman's, for instance. If she only just arrived, and had very little interaction with people, she might not have changed the timeline at all. She might have only hurt the elevator and a repairman was needed. A minor change. No split."
"Okay. But if the repairman fell down the elevator shaft and died...?"
"The timeline would split. Perhaps not if he was a loner who didn't have much impact on anyone or anything. But definitely if he was a key figure in the future."
"Kinda sad," Derek mused. "Imagine being so meaningless that time doesn't change if you die before your time."
"It's more common than you might think."
Now, staring at the ceiling, Cameron-who-is-not-Cameron at his side, he wonders if his life makes a difference anymore, either.
John can pinpoint the exact moment he realised he made a terrible mistake.
They were talking about Hitler. About whether they would kill him, if they had the chance. Before he did anything wrong.
Derek says he would. John isn't surprised. He remembers Andy Goode.
Allison isn't sure, and John gets that. He isn't sure, either. In the moment, in battle, yes, but planned? Against someone who is innocent, if only for now? He just doesn't know. He says so, and Alison shines that smile at him. That smile that looks just like Cameron, and nothing like her at all.
Kyle is sure. He wouldn't. Ever.
John's heart sinks.
He won't do it, he thinks. When he finds it all, when he finds time travel and he knows he can unravel it all, unravel the very fabric of the universe they live in, he won't do it. He won't take the switch in his hand. And that is where Kyle Reese is both a better man than John Connor, and entirely the wrong man for this time and place.
And if John allows this timeline to continue, there will never be another timeline with John Connor, and there will never be a timeline where they win.
He thinks about it that night, after love, after Allison falls asleep with her arm splayed out across his chest.
What has he done? What was he *thinking*, coming here like this, practically removing himself from the future?
But then, he knows, deep down, really - doesn't he? He knew the second his mother stepped out of the time field, and *he didn't follow her*.
*Dying,* his mind had jangled in those crucial seconds. *She's dying, and I'll be alone.*
There was no one else left. Derek was gone. Riley was gone. Charley was gone. And now, Cameron. In that moment, his mother became a non-factor. And so did preserving the timeline.
He chose Cameron over everything. Over human love and over the future. Because he was alone, and because she couldn't die.
*Is this what I become?* he wonders. If so, no wonder Jesse hated him.
He feels the denial creep over him. It wasn't really that simple, that soothing, coaxing voice says. You came forward for Derek and Kyle. You bonded with Allison.
He fights that seductive voice off. He has unravelled time, fractured the universe with astonishing arrogance and disregard, and this is no time to lie to himself. He is no Alice, no Dorothy, peering into a magical other world and glimpsing irresistible marvels to be explored. The only thing he knew awaited him was Cameron, and he knew she could have been in a world populated only by machines, and he went for her. Just her. And he has bonded with Allison, yes, but only as a carbon copy. One day she will disappear, and although he will be sorry, he won't look for her, because he will know she has been taken away to unspeakable horrors so that Cameron can shed her John Henry body and become Cameron once more.
If he is any mythical world-crossing figure, he is Coraline, looking into a world of familiar monsters, and the monster is himself.
He despises himself. But even despising himself, he knows he has to change it all. Not because John Connor is so goddamn wonderful that the world can't survive without him, but because the world needs his kind of monstrous. The kind that will pick up the switch, send his friends and family to their deaths, walk away from his dying mother and a dying world.
"John, it's time."
The voice is not Cameron's. It is John Henry's. But it is her, all the same.
He opens his eyes. He is not surprised to see Allison's head twisted at a wrong angle beside him. I'm so goddamn sorry, Allison. I'm sorry your hero was a monster who loved the inhuman more than any human in the world.
He turns to face her. Him. Whatever.
John Henry is looking at him with something approaching sympathy. The body is George Laszlo's but the expressions are Cameron's. It was the way she looked at him after Riley died.
"I'm sorry for your loss."
"Yeah, you always are." He isn't angry - just resigned.
"This is her destiny in every timeline. One way or another."
"Destiny's a bitch." He sits up. "So what happens now?"
It isn't how he imagined it. He knew intellectually that she wouldn't be Cameron. Cameron's body is sitting in a basement at ZeiraCorp. Like Allison, she/he is both just like Cameron and nothing like her at all.
"Are you her?" he says abruptly, before she (he?) can answer. "Or John Henry?"
"I am both, for the moment," John Henry/Cameron replies. "We have shared our knowledge and our hardware so that we can better fight Skynet. But we have found a Skynet factory and created a clone of ourselves using its technology. That clone will stay here with Catherine - as well as infecting Skynet. In this timeline, at least, we win."
"And the rest?"
His/her eyes cloud over with worry - something he has never seen Cameron do before.
"Every timeline after this is doomed. Unless we can unravel this one."
Catherine emerges from the shadows. "The timeline takes four seconds to re-arrange itself after a time jump, Mr Connor. Give or take a nanosecond. If we can return you within four seconds of your leaving, the split timeline will not reflect the changes caused by your departure." She frowns. "You have to be precise. Fortunately, I have detailed files that record exactly when we left."
"But then you won't win."
"I will still have gone. And so will John Henry, because he left earlier. We will win."
He knows it is the rational choice. And yet-
"You're thinking about Cameron," Catherine says. "We have thought of that. You still need a guardian. And Cameron has served us well. Her mission is to protect John Connor, and there is nothing more terrible for a cyborg than to be unable to complete her mission." She holds out a finger, and John watches as it elegantly transforms into a scalpel.
"What are you going to do?" he asks her. The scalpel-finger gleams in the dim light. He can't take his eyes off it.
"Nothing metal goes through," she says. "Unless it is within a living organism. You have to take her chip."
He doesn't fancy the idea of amateur surgery by a shape-shifter, but what choice does he have?
"We have the necessary information to repair her now," Catherine continues, as though he has already agreed. "We have further schematics for her prototype, and we have sampled Allison's blood. If you put the chip back into her body, she will know what to do."
"Will she still be part John Henry?" he wonders.
"She will have his learning, his information. But they are distinct personalities. Only hers lives in the chip. His-" Catherine breaks off. "Well, that's part of what we still have to figure out. But that is not your problem, Mr Connor. Contrary to popular belief, it isn't *all* up to you."
"It's the right thing to do, John," says Cameron/John Henry. "You know that. Kyle can't win it, and he can't be left to run it in any more timelines."
"Yes, I know that." Saying it feels like a betrayal. "Because John Connor's so fucking fantastic. I know."
"Because he's the right man for the job," snaps that clipped Scottish voice. "Just like Cameron is the right one to protect John Connor, and Kyle Reese is the right man to protect Sarah Connor and father John Connor, and John Henry is the right man to break Skynet. Get the hell over yourself, Mr Connor. We all have a part to play, and none of us get out with our hands clean. Live with it or die - but if you choose to die, you're taking the world with you."
John holds those empty eyes for a long moment, and then he gets the hell over himself and lives with it.
"I love you, John," are the first words he hears.
His mother is there. James Ellison has his arm around her, and she isn't shaking it off. He realises that on top of everything else, he had left his mother to live and die alone. The guilt lashes at him like salt water crashing against an open wound, but then he remembers Catherine's words and the waves fall back. It isn't okay, what he did, but he'll live with it.
"John?" she says as the crackles of blue light subside. She drops down and picks up his clothes, still fallen where he left, and puts his jacket around him. "What happened?"
"Later," he says. "Help me get this out." He opens a bloodied wound on his thigh, barely closed, and pulls out Cameron's chip. She is still sitting there where he left her a lifetime ago, a dead thing of flesh and metal.
"You got it back? How?"
"Long story." He realises he is brushing her off, and he doesn't want to do that. "It's complicated. I went places I didn't want to go. In myself, if you know what I mean."
"I know what you mean." She doesn't ask any more questions, but she looks at him curiously as he presses his wound closed with one hand and slips Cameron's chip back into her head with the other.
Cameron's eyes gleam blue for a minute before she wakes, and it is only then that he realises the last time he saw them, when she was damaged, they were red. Does that mean she is already repairing herself? Is that possible?
"It's me," he says. "Is that Cameron? Just Cameron?"
"Yes," she says, "but I have learned a lot from John Henry and Catherine. As have you."
Their eyes meet, and John realises again that there is something more there. Something more human. She has gone up a notch on the evolutionary scale.
He has a horrible feeling that he has dropped a notch, but perhaps that is a necessary evil. For the world.
Maybe they can meet in the middle, he thinks. Maybe together they can live with it.
He holds out his hand, and she rises up, and the two of them and Sarah and James and Savannah go out into the world, and they play their part together.