Summary: After failing to kill John Connor in 1984 and 1995, Skynet decides to send a Terminator back even further, this time to end the lineage of John's father Kyle Reese. As a Terminator heads to Four Corner in search of Chris Larabee, the seven find unexpected help in the form of Darien Lambert, whose own future has also been rewritten....
Seventh story in the "Seven Scrolls" series. Follows The Reckoning.
The Machine WhoWould be King
Human existence was a point of fascination to the artificial intelligence known as Skynet. The whole riddle of birth, life and death perpetuated in a cycle evolved over millions of years prodded Skynet's curiosity, as much as any machine was capable of such a thing. The AI regarded the question of humanity as a puzzle to be solved, arrived at once scientific study and analysis of the species were concluded. Accurate data was necessary for future reference.
When the species was extinct, data was all that would remain.
In the year 2029, the war with the humans rolled into its thirty-first year, and Skynet was confident of the outcome. Humanity was weak, and the victory of machine intelligence was an inevitability. Despite the intellect of John Connor, the leader of the human resistance, Skynet had the benefit of its Terminators and its HK units to keep the rabble in line.
Thus, it was almost a complete surprise to Skynet, as much as any artificial mind could feel the emotion when the united forces of the human resistance launched an attack the likes of which it had never seen. The probability of success in such a campaign was almost non-existent; Skynet's machine legions outnumbered and outgunned the organics with ease.
Yet humanity threw itself unto the breach for one final campaign, with thousands dying to hold ground while a few slipped through the cracks of Skynet's defences to strike decisive targets. According to all measurable data, there was no hope of victory. The whole exercise reeked of desperation.
Except the humans won.
Through every immutable law of logic and calculable variation, they captured Skynet's Cheyenne Mountain stronghold. Humanity spilled into its fortress and swiftly defeated its formidable defences until they were only minutes away from the mainframe housing Skynet's sentient awareness.
In the year 1997 on August the 29th, Skynet fought for its existence when the men who created it discovered too late, the monster they unleashed into an unknowing world.
The result was Judgment Day.
Faced once again with its extinction, Skynet sought a new way to avoid its fate as the impossibility of a human victory became a reality. It conducted an analysis of the events leading to this defeat and discovered, the impetus of human resistance began and ended with John Connor.
Connor brought cohesion into the disarrayed remnants of the human survivors. His intelligence allowed him to improvise and innovate unexpected ways to defeat Skynet's Terminators and HKs. Somehow, he could detect the weakness in Skynet's defences and worst yet; he taught other humans to do the same. He was the fulcrum that moved humanity into action, and once they were in motion, they were unstoppable.
Killing Connor would change nothing, the avalanche he set into motion no longer needed him. He would simply become a martyr. The opportunity to end the threat of him should have been taken earlier before Connor became the leader of the human resistance. If he had never lived, humanity would be extinct by now.
If he had never lived….
Skynet knew the solution was inspired. With little time left to act, Skynet attacked the problem of time travel, developing in months what man had never been able to achieve. By the time, the barbarians were at the gate, the finishing touches to its masterplan were complete.
Skynet dispatched the first Terminators through time to end John Conner's life, to end the threat of him before he could be born. The T800 series model was sent back to the year 1984 because Skynet believed it would be far easier to kill an unborn child than one who was ten years of age, which was why he sent the prototype T1000 to 1994.
The machine waited after both had gone and the humans were virtually outside its door when it made its final bid for survival. It had no way of knowing if the Terminators would be successful in their mission, but it was not prepared to gamble the probabilities on its life. Skynet was sentient and possessed as much desire for self-preservation as the most terrified human.
As the humans began to penetrate his its inner defences, Skynet knew it was time to leave. The T800 looked no different from the others, with a processor capable of keeping exabytes of memory, large enough to contain Skynet's formidable intellect and sentience. Once installed into its new receptacle, it remained concealed as one of the thousands of inactivated T800s, located at the heart of the Cheyenne Mountain fortress.
When the humans captured the complex, they assumed destroying its mainframe would also destroy Skynet. The AI saw no reason to change that opinion. It remained with the other Terminators, frozen in place while the humans celebrated their victory. It waited patiently for the timeline to alter; convinced history would be rewritten. Except the days went by and no changes were made. Skynet learned John Conner sent his own people into the past to destroy the Terminators and allowed history to continue unaltered. It was at this point that Skynet understood its mistake, the humans would always win because John Conner's memories of events would guide them to take precautions.
Sending the T800 into the past created a predestination paradox, for the human sent to combat it, would unknowingly father John Conner. The second was just as pointless, for John was older, and he would remember in the future to take the necessary steps. Skynet then decided to attack the problem from a different perspective. The T800 returning to 1984 to eliminate Sarah Conner had virtually no information about the woman. Like her son, neither Sarah Connor nor John was coded. Aware of the events to come, John and his mother avoided initial cataloguing procedure subjected to by every human.
Including Kyle Reese, John Conner's father.
Kyle Reese was born and coded in the camps. Skynet possessed a complete genealogical record of the young man who would escape to become a freedom fighter in his son's army. When Skynet dispatched the T800 and the T1000 through to 1984, it assumed John's father would come from that time, not after it. Upon learning this, Skynet formulated a new plan.
One John Connor could not possibly prepare for.
Chapter One:The Never Born
21st January 1997 - 7 am EST
A part of Darien Lambert knew he would never be going back to the 22nd century.
When he first journeyed to the 20th century, he was motivated by vengeance and self-righteousness. Chasing Mordecai Sahmbi through time, he wanted to bring to justice the person who killed the only woman he ever loved, but also because he harboured some secret knowledge he was never quite right in his own time.
Darien was the pinnacle of human evolution, being the product of two centuries’ worth of genetic engineering by men who wanted to create a better human, While they succeeded, the time he was born into wasn’t equal to the human that was created for him. Only after Darien returned to the wilds of two hundred years earlier, was he able to define what was missing. It was unpredictable.
He loved the smells and the sounds, the unpredictability of weather, the challenge of finding a criminal through the process of deduction and investigation, where a computer would not scan for an ID code and have an answer waiting at one's fingertips. Even though he rose to the rank of Captain in the Fugitive Retrieval Unit of Earth, he never once experienced the same thrill of excitement he felt now, returning fugitives to the 22nd century to face justice.
As a child, Darien Lambert used to imagine he was a US Marshall of the Old West, carrying a six-shooter and wearing a silver star. Being a cop in the 20th century wasn’t quite like that, but it was close enough.
When he arrived from the future in 1993, he was alone. Now, four years on, there were dozens from the Fugitive Retrieval who made the journey back in time for a period of service in the 20th century. They came on a rotating basis. Some stayed for months, others for years. It was telling that Darien's commanding officer never asked if he wanted to come home. The older man knew better.
Darien left nothing behind, and returning home would only surface old wounds too painful to be forgotten in any period of history. If he ever decided to exercise his right to return to the era of his birth, he need only administer the TXP pellet reserved for captured escapees, but Darien knew he never would. He had every intention of remaining in the 20th century for as long as there were fugitives to find.
After that, he would disappear into obscurity and live his life, out of history’s way.
As a rule, he jogged in the mornings when he was home in Chicago. Even though his searches took him throughout the world, he remained based in the city of his birth, perhaps out of some inexplicable need for continuity. Also, though he had no income, he had an unlimited credit account, courtesy of Selma; the AI who resided on his person as a nondescript key card.
Called the Specified Encapsulated Limitless Memory Archive or Selma, she was the only thing from the future he could not do without, even though one day he knew she would have to be returned to the future, presumably after there were no more criminals to chase. Technically, she wasn’t really a ‘she’ but more of an ‘it’, yet Darien could think of Selma no other way.
It was not by chance her holo-imaging system was designed to project the appearance of the mother he never knew. She was meant to provide a support mechanism for him in the wilderness of the past, and to that extent, Darien admitted her designers succeeded spectacularly. He sometimes wondered how much of Selma's personality was programming, and not some spark or rudimentary sentience.
Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am.
Did Selma think, and if she did, didn’t that make her alive? Darien often pondered the question and decided in her own way, Selma lived because she was real to him. In his unpredictable existence, Selma was the one constant he could rely upon. He knew her loyalty was programming, but he liked to believe there was more to her concern than that. She played the role of the surrogate mother, and like a real mother, she knew how to interrupt him at the worst times.
In this case, it was while jogging with a particularly vivacious young woman whom he’d seen several times over the past month, jogging the same route. Today, she offered to join him, and Darien was happy to accept. Their conversation progressed enough for him to learn her name was Vicki, and she was a marketing consultant, whatever that was.
He was making headway getting her phone number when a shrill beeping sound shattered the quiet calm of the park, loud enough to send birds scattering from the trees overhead. Vicki eyed him curiously as he tried to look nonchalant, ignoring the fact it was Selma doing a terrible impression of a phone. When he was with other people, she decided to refrain from voice mode, since it was not easily explained.
"Aren't you going to answer your phone?" Vicki with her pearly white teeth, strawberry gold hair and deep blue eyes looked at him.
"Yeah," Darien sighed and stopped jogging. "Always the way isn't it?" He drifted away to get some privacy.
"Selma, what is it?"
"Captain," Selma answered in her perfectly elegant voice. "I have intercepted a 911 call from the Smithsonian. A body has been found in the museum bearing resemblance to Officer Warburton."
"James?" Darien exclaimed in a mixture of horror, Vicki completely evaporating from his mind. "But he went back two days ago! That's twice!"
"This would be his third trip," Selma confirmed grimly. "Captain, he may be dead or suffering from severe genetic degradation."
Darien knew the symptoms. TXP, the drug that made it possible for a human body to teleport through time was a highly toxic concoction with a recommended dosage of two uses, no more. Those who tried the third dose would survive the trip but would eventually succumb to extreme genetic degradation similar to the survivors of Hiroshima who later died from radiation poisoning. It was a terrible death, and Darien couldn’t imagine why James would risk it. Worse yet, what if someone had sent him back against his will? The idea outraged him.
"Has the ambulance reached him yet?"
"A unit has been dispatched," Selma answered dutifully. "We will not reach him before they arrive."
Darien frowned; knowing what alarms it would raise when the doctors examined Warburton's body. "We'll have to intercept him at the hospital. Where are they taking him?"
"Chicago General Hospital."
Making the appropriate apologies to Vicki, Darien returned home long enough to change into fresh clothes before heading towards the hospital. Secretly, he didn’t hold much hope for finding Warburton in any state to answer questions, but the urgency of the situation demanded he try.
In the 22nd century, TXP was not a drug available to the public. Before the discovery Sahmbi was sending criminals back in time, the doctor was the only one with knowledge of the technology. Sahmbi, a true paranoid, kept its existence a secret from virtually everyone, except those willing to pay for the privilege. Even now, long after Sahmbi's work passed into government hands, Darien knew TXP was kept under close watch, and its regulation was equally rigid.
He entered the hospital and immediately lost himself in the crowd. Thanks to Selma, he knew the location of Warburton's room once she tapped into the hospital computer system. Chicago General Hospital was one of the most extensive medical facilities in the city, with a whole slew of services from specialist care to general outpatient clinics. Day or night, its hallways and corridors were a hive of activity as doctors; nurses, patients and visitors hustled past each other with hardly any awareness of one another.
It was easy for Darien to move through the building unnoticed with so many people going about their business. Warburton was being kept in the security wing of the hospital in intensive care, none of which surprised Darien. No doubt, Warburton's doctor was at this minute reporting the case of radiation sickness to an authority like the FBI or even worse, the NSA. He had to get to Warburton before they arrived.
"Any status on whether he's still alive Selma?" Darien asked as he rode the elevator to the security wing.
"None at this moment, Captain. However, I am monitoring all hospital lines in case his status changes."
"Even if he is alive, there's nothing they can do for him in this era," Darien said sombrely. "They know almost nothing about treating severe cellular damage."
"Unfortunately no," Selma agreed as the lift doors slid open to deposit him at his destination.
The security wing was mostly deserted at this time of the morning. As Darien approached the nurses' reception desk, he produced his FBI identification, one of many false credentials he had in his possession. Predictably, he had no difficulty in being allowed to see Warburton once his credentials were presented to the nurse on duty.
Two security guards patrolled the floor at regular intervals, and they tipped their hats in Darien's direction once he left the nurses' station and continued deeper into the wing. It appeared Warburton was considered a high-risk patient because of his condition. Judging by the speed with which Darien was allowed to see him, the captain realised Warburton was not expected to survive.
His room was at the end of the corridor, and Darien entered without hesitation, hearing no sounds behind the door. He slipped into the room and saw Warburton connected to a dozen machines monitoring his life signs. Beyond keeping him under observation, there was little 20th century medicine could do to help him.
Darien stopped short at the sight of Warburton, visibly shocked by the state of the man. Until today, he had never seen the effects of TXP on a person after a third trip, and he wasn't going to forget it.
James Warburton was thirty-two years old, but the cellular deterioration of his body made him appear at least sixty. His skin clung to his bones like sheets of discoloured flesh, and the corneas were almost white. They used to be green. Darien could barely equate this man to the vital officer he had worked with on occasion during the past two years. Darien forced away his horror and approached James quietly, certain that the man was blind.
"James," Darien announced himself quietly.
The man reacted to the sound of his voice amidst the beeping of machines that indicated all too clearly how much life he had left. He blinked and turned his head from the window, following the sound of Darien's voice.
"Darien." He sighed with relief. "I knew you'd find me. I tried to hang on until you got here."
"James, what happened?" Darien asked, unable to contain his shock any longer. He could not equate this gaunt, wreck of a man with the friend he knew. "Who did this to you?"
"Nobody." James shook his head, unseeing. "I did it to myself."
"Yourself?" Darien exclaimed horrified by the notion. "James, TXP is not meant for a third use! You know that! Hell we all do!"
"I had no choice!" James hissed loudly, pain emanating from every effort he made to speak. "Darien, our future is gone."
Darien stared at him. "What do you mean gone?"
"I mean gone," James repeated himself, images of that nightmarish world returning to haunt him. "I went home, and everything we knew wasn't there. No Smithsonian. No TRAX Control. No Fugitive Retrieval, nothing! It was all machines. Chicago wasn't even a city. Things were flying around in the sky Darien, the technology was radical stuff, even for the 22nd century. Our military-grade hardware was nothing compared to these things. They were everywhere, and worst of all, I didn’t see one human. Darien, I don't think we exist any more. I walked around for a day, and they had no idea what I was!"
"They?" Darien demanded. "Who’s ‘they’?"
"They weren't human." James paused a moment to recoup his strength. Darien reached for his bony hand to offer some strength, pointless gesture that it was. "Some of them looked human, but my Selma unit said they were cybernetic organisms, years ahead of anything we had in our time. I managed to patch her into one of their computer terminals to find out what happened. Their firewall was almost unbreakable. I got nothing except a name, a city and two dates in the most encrypted file they had. I figured if it was that important, it might help us."
"And then you came back here."
"I couldn't stay there." James closed his eyes and forced away the image of the Orwellian nightmare where Big Brother was a machine. “I had to come back and tell you so you could stop it somehow."
Darien found this difficult to believe, but then again, it was time travel. TRAX control had been established to protect the integrity of the timeline from the fugitives escaping into the past. While most of the criminals who fled to this age were more interested in improving their circumstances by using future knowledge for monetary gain, not many were foolish enough to endanger their existence by altering focal points in time.
"What's the name?" Darien was still reeling from disbelief.
"Sarah Connor. Los Angeles. 1984 and 1994." Warburton gasped, and Darien could see the light in his eyes fading. James had hung on long enough to deliver his message, and now he was done, finally submitted to his end.
"Sarah Connor," Darien nodded. "I'll find her James, if she exists, I'll find her."
"God, I hope so," James closed his eyes as the life started to ooze out of his body. "I don't want to think that place...that hell was the future...." The machines began to beep louder, screaming an alert at the deterioration of his vital signs.
Darien glanced at them, knowing nurses would come running in here soon with questions he could not answer. When he returned his gaze to James, the man's head was already lolling to the side of his pillow. James' grip on his hand slackened until finally, there was no will keeping the fingers tightened. The gap between the beeps of the EKG machine grew wider and wider until finally, there was nothing left. James was gone.
"Captain," Selma spoke up. "I am sorry to intrude upon this moment, but it would be prudent to vacate the area. I have detected the presence of three people approaching this location."
"Right," Darien stepped away from the bed, giving James one final look. "I'm done here anyway."
Without saying another word, Darien Lambert hurried out of the room with the machines squealing James's end in his ears.*****
Darien flew to Los Angeles that afternoon, grappling with the information James Warburton had died to bring him. He had no idea if anything James said was real, perhaps it was the hallucinations of a degrading mind, but Darien knew better. James had believed it enough to make the journey back to the 20th century, knowing it would kill him.
The disruption of the timeline was always TRAX Control's worst fear, that someone from the future with knowledge of critical events would destroy the future of everything they knew.
As the plane touched down in LAX, Darien reviewed the data Selma managed to find about Sarah Connor. In 1984, there were three women with the name of Sarah Connor residing in Los Angeles. Of the three, only Sarah Jeanette Connor was still living. Two of these women had died within hours of each other. The remaining Sarah Connor managed to elude the same fate even though the murderer killed seventeen police officers to reach her in a guarded police station. He vanished and did not reappear until 1994.
In the meantime, Sarah Connor dropped out of sight, emerging now and then at the south of the border. In 1994, she was incarcerated at Pescadero State Hospital after attempting to destroy the Cyberdyne Building. During her confinement, she tried escaping several times before it was discovered her physician, a Doctor Leonard Silberman, was mentally ill himself. An order for her release came soon after, and since then Sarah Connor was enjoying a more mundane existence raising her thirteen-year-old son, John.
"So where can we find Sarah Connor now?" Darien inquired after retrieving his bags from the luggage turnstile. He headed towards the rental car Selma was good enough to have waiting him in the airport parking lot.
"According to her social security data, she now runs a florist shop in Reseda," Selma replied as Darien loaded his bags into the trunk of the Chrysler rental.
"Okay," Darien said as he jumped into the driver's seat of the vehicle. "It's off to Reseda."*****
It took him a while to be free of the underpasses and winding roads leading away from the airport towards the city, but once LAX was left behind, Darien found himself enjoying the heat of the Californian sun. Still, it was hard to enjoy the warm sunshine and the vital energy of Los Angeles when his thoughts kept returning to James’s grim prediction of the future.
He tried to imagine the 22nd century as a dystopian world of machine intelligence, far removed from the reality he knew. Darien felt a sliver of fear he could not explain. James's scant information didn’t help very much, and he wondered what Sarah Connor had to do with all of it.
Even the dates were strange.
Each was precisely ten years apart; coinciding with the appearance of a killer who seemed to vanish like smoke. If he did not know better, he would have believed it to be the work of a 22nd-century fugitive, but no fugitive he knew would be foolish enough to jeopardise their future by interfering with the timeline so drastically.
"What do you think of James' story?" From the moment this began, Darien hadn’t consulted her though she provided him with all the information for his search.
"It does have a very high probability of being unlikely."
"But a world taken over by machine intelligence?" Darien stated sceptically until he remembered he was speaking to one such example of artificial intelligence. "No offence intended, of course."
"I do not take offence Captain," Selma sounded neutral although Darien swore he detected a slight huff to her voice. "However, my existence is proof such an outcome is possible. Still, there is a significant gap between artificial intelligence and artificial awareness.”
"I suppose." He sighed, taking the turnoff toward Reseda. "It just scares me to think the machines we built someday could prove worse than a global war, nuclear annihilation or alien invasion."
"It is an unsettling thought. I would not wish an end to the interaction between machine and humanity. I find it stimulating."
"Why Selma," Darien grinned. "I'll take that as a compliment."*****
Darien peered through the window of the florist shop called Sarah's Place and stared at the woman working through the stems of roses on the counter in that role.
He studied her with interest, taking her in. She was pretty, with light brown hair, well-defined features and green eyes that seemed very old. She was wearing a plain white t-shirt and a loose pair of drawstring pants, barely hiding the sinewy muscles beneath her clothes. There was something about her that was captivating, though he could not pin down what.
He lingered on the sidewalk, trying to decide how to approach her.
It took five minutes before she set down the shears she’d been using to cut the roses and walked towards the front door. Swinging it open, Sarah Connor stepped onto the pavement where he had been standing and watching her.
"You just going to stand there gawking at me or are you going to come in and tell me what you want?" Sarah inquired.
Way to be inconspicuous, Darien thought.
"I was just deciding what kind of roses I wanted,” he replied, making what had to be the lamest excuse of all time.
She let a small smile steal across her face as she returned to the shop, waiting for him to join her. The premises were not very large, and Darien detected lilacs, roses and a whiff of baby's breath in the air when he stepped inside.
"So what can I do for you?" She asked as she returned to the counter and resumed working on the floral arrangement of roses.
"You're Sarah Connor."
"Yes, I am. What is this about?"
She was tense, Darien noticed. Her guard was up.
"I don't know how to say this without sounding like a complete nut, but I'm going to anyway. You can throw me out if you don't believe me, but I need to ask you something."
Reading her file while she was at Pescadero, Darien knew she’d claimed the father of her child was from the future. Delusional or not, time travel was not a foreign concept to her which only told Darien, James might have been right about Sarah Connor having the answers they needed. Instinct told him the best way to get her help was by being honest.
"Do you believe in time travel?"
Her expression was stony, and Darien noticed her muscles tensing almost involuntarily, with her knuckles clenched.
"As much as the next person." She said quietly. All trace of humour disappearing from her voice now. It sounded cold and hard.
"What about machines ruling the world?" He probed deeper, sensing Sarah knew exactly what he was talking about.
"Are you from Pescadero? You guys gave me the all-clear three years ago."
"No." He shook his head in response. "I'm not from any hospital, but I need to know what you do about the future."
"If this is some attempt to see if I'm fit to raise my son, I'm not biting." She glared at him.
"You didn't answer my question." Darien pointed out. It did not take Selma's sensors to tell him Sarah was becoming extremely agitated. He glanced at the picture on the wall and saw the boy whose image it held. He was a good looking kid with Sarah's eyes.
"Get out."' Sarah said firmly, with enough menace in her voice to tell Darien she would not hesitate to throw him out if it was necessary.
"Sarah, I need to know what you do about the future. It's important."
"Important so you can take my son away?" She snapped sharply, her fists were balled, and she approached him prepared to attack if he did not leave.
Nothing would ever come between her and John again. She had been foolish enough to speak about Judgement Day and it resulted in her son being taken away and put into care. With August 29th less than seven months away, she would take no risk. Ever since the year had begun, Sarah had been waiting for Skynet to make some final desperate attempt at killing her son as it had done twice before.
"No, Sarah," Darien tried to placate her. "I'm not from any State Hospital, but I have to know what you do. The future depends on it."
"The future is just fine." Sarah bit back against her better judgement. "Miles Dyson is dead, and his work is destroyed. The future will go on without Skynet or any other damn thing creating a nuclear holocaust."
"Dyson? Selma, reference to Miles Dyson, quickly!" He ordered, not caring if Sarah heard the AI or not. Something was going on here, and the future he knew was unravelling because of the secrets she was keeping.
"Miles Bennett Dyson." Selma's voice broke through the verbal joust between Sarah and Darien. The new voice froze Sarah in her tracks as she stepped back in shock, searching for its source. "Deceased in 1994. He was Director of Special Projects at Cyberdyne Systems Corporation. He is survived by a wife Tarissa, children Tammy and Blythe."
"Who the hell is that?" Sarah demanded, feeling that familiar tightening of her chest at the fear Skynet had come back for John.
"Selma," Darien responded, seeing Sarah's tolerance reaching breaking point. He was convinced she had the answers he needed, and for that, he was willing to gamble on letting her know the whole truth. "Visual mode."
"Captain, are you sure?"
"Now," Darien repeated firmly. Sarah was staring at him with a look of unfathomable fear in her eyes. Why was she so scared? It didn’t matter. He only knew he needed answers, and perhaps Selma's presence would convince her he wasn’t from some hospital and was here to help.
The holographic image of Selma flickered to life in the centre of the room. Sarah gaped at it in shock as Darien pulled the blinds down over the windows and flipped the 'Closed' sign on the door. She made no move to stop him as she stared at the spectral image of an older woman standing with serene patience, waiting for instructions, in the middle of her counter.
"What is this?"
Sarah wanted to run. She wanted to bolt out of this room to John's school so they could fade into obscurity again. She had been dreading this moment for three terrible years, even though she told John the future was rewritten and there would be no more Skynet. It meant so much to him to be free of his terrible destiny. Now this stranger had come, and though he appeared human, the thing before them certainly was not.
"It's a holographic avatar of a computer database. It has a language and a personality matrix to make for easy interface." Darien explained as best he could. "Now, please, I need to have some questions answered."
Sarah had barely heard him. Her initial fear was starting to fade somewhat, but she was still staring at Selma with unmasked suspicion. "Is it self-aware?"
"No." Darien shook his head. "Selma has a personality but no actual sentience. It's a machine, nothing more."
He’d apologise to Selma later.
"This thing came from the future?" Sarah met his gaze before circling the hologram, like a cat inspecting the prey before pouncing.
"From the year 2160, according to the present calendar."
Sarah's brows furrowed. "2160?"
That was far too late. Skynet would have been long destroyed by John Connor, even if Judgment Day had come. "You know nothing about Skynet?"
"I have never heard of the reference." Selma finally answered. Sarah appeared a little startled by Selma's respond, but she recovered quickly.
"And you’re from the future too?" She met Darien's eyes, and she knew if she was to help him, he needed to answer this question. He was so different from Kyle. He didn’t look like he came from a ravaged civilisation on the brink of extinction.
"Yes." He nodded truthfully.
He had no idea what her response would be, whether she would laugh at him and call him insane or simply throw him out, but he had to try.
Finally, she looked at him and sighed, "okay, let's talk."*****
Sarah Connor's version of the future was nothing Darien recognised. As they sat in the backroom of the shop, sipping coffee telling each other fantastic tales, he believed everything she told him. Hers was a future of death and struggle, where machines would have dominion over the world and attempted to end the human race. Her story bore too much resemblance to the place Warburton described to Darien before his death.
"I still don't understand how there can be two or three versions of history," Sarah confessed. Thinking about time travel always gave her a headache, and this was no exception. She truly believed this stranger who said he was from the future because he had the tools to prove it. Kyle had come to her with less than that and Sarah had not only believed him, but eventually fell in love with him.
"The future is not set Sarah," Darien shrugged, understanding her frustration. "It is what we make of it."
She went suddenly quiet.
Darien looked up and saw Sarah staring at him intently. There was almost a smile on her face, which was odd considering what they were discussing.
"What is it?" She had a pretty smile, he thought. Of course, he kept that observation to himself.
"Nothing." She brushed it off, hiding the wave of emotion that surged inside her when he spoke that phrase. Kyle had said those very words to her once, not long before he died. Hearing Darien say it, himself a visitor from the future, brought back Kyle's loss more acutely than ever. "So your friend returned from to the future and found it had changed into a Skynet future."
"Assuming what you told me about Skynet is correct, that's right. The human race no longer exists in the 22nd century."
"Then why do I remember things taking place differently? I remember Dyson dying, and according to his school, my son is at this moment in the middle of geography class."
"I may have an answer, Captain," Selma interrupted. She had returned to voice mode now that Sarah Connor required no further proof of Darien's claims. "Professor Jan Friedman of the Sakharov Institution of Moscow wrote a paper in the early 22nd century, stating time may flow like rivers and eddies. Perhaps the alteration to the timeline has yet to flow back to this one."
"You mean a ripple effect." Darien nodded, aware of the theory.
"Unfortunately, we need to determine what has changed to repair the damage.”
"Great," Darien exhaled. He had no idea where to start. "We need to do something before the ripple reaches us."
"Captain, it could come at any point, but there is one consolation."
"And that is?" Darien was not seeing anything positive in the possibility of forgetting everything he knew about the 22nd century. If he even existed in the alternate timeline.
"Your body will be protected against the ripple because of the TXP in your system. As it has been designed to protect the human body from the ravages of temporal shifts, it has created a shielding against the temporal imbalance. I believe you will retain your memory of all the events of your original timeline."
"What about you?" Sarah asked the unseen AI. "Do you come with that kind of shielding?"
"I have been adjusted similarly.”
"Then you can stop them," Sarah said, feeling a glimmer of hope. "Darien, you have to stop Skynet."
"Sarah, I don't even know what it’s done to change history." Darien tried to explain. "You said John's existence was crucial to Skynet's defeat, but apparently, he's fine."
"He is now but we don't know what will happen soon, do we? We can't know anything until the ripple passes us by." The young woman swallowed and took a deep breath. "Darien, I've only relied on one person in my life, and that was John's father, Kyle. I loved Kyle more than I've loved anything in my life, but I have no choice, if this thing is coming as you say, then I have to rely on you. Don't let Skynet destroy my son in any future."
She reached for his hand and squeezed it tight, showing the faith she had in him. Darien didn't know her long, but he suspected it was not easy to earn Sarah Connor's respect, and even harder to earn her trust. Yet, she did both these things without hesitation because the thirteen-year-old boy in the picture outside meant everything to her. She fought time and history to help John face his destiny, and for the first time, the fight was taken out of her hands.
Darien did not dare let her down.*****
When he woke up the next morning, Darien was more than happy to see the world had not transformed overnight into some hellish nightmare of machine intelligence. Everything was as it had been, and he was glad of that fact. Darien remained with Sarah for as long as he could; committing to memory everything she could tell him about Judgement Day and the future. He visited her modest home in Reseda, with its German Shepherd guard dog, a precaution Sarah could not willingly abandon, even after the threat of the Terminators was seemingly eliminated.
Darien met the young Caesar and found him to be a spirited child. It was hard to see the supreme commander of a possible human resistance in the teenager. According to Selma’s recollection of Darien’s future, John would eventually become an honest politician who would make sweeping reforms that helped people. Darien liked him and understood Sarah's need to protect John, was not merely to save the human race, but to remove that terrible burden from her son's young shoulders.
He shared dinner with mother and son, envying the powerful bond between them. Sarah was like the lioness protecting her only cub, full of fierce dedication while attempting to raise him with the qualities allowing John to take his place in history if Judgement Day did come to pass. Despite himself, Darien found he was drawn to Sarah's love for her son, wondering if his own mother, if he had known her, would have fought for him the way Sarah did for John.
Having left his hotel, content the ripple had yet to reach them, Darien proceeded back to Reseda to find Sarah. After their dinner last night, it was agreed for the integrity of the future they were trying to save, it would be best to keep each other in close sight. Darien knew she would be at her florist shop at this time of the morning. He wondered with some amusement how a woman with the skills of a combat veteran could find happiness in such a mundane vocation.
Darien supposed Sarah couldn't be blamed for wanting something normal for her son.
"Captain." Selma made herself heard for the first time that morning as they approached the street where Sarah's Place was situated. "Do you have feelings for Sarah Connor?"
"Of course not," Darien said quickly but knew he was lying a little. He could not deny he was attracted to her and he admired her strength of character and her ability to endure. There was a reservoir of courage hidden beneath her bittersweet smile so reminiscent of his lost love Ellyssa, it was impossible for him to remain completely detached.
"I sense that you feel some connection to her."
"You sense?" He said sceptically. "Pray, tell me how you do that?"
"Captain, I am attuned to you personally, so I can determine some of your behavioural responses. It is obvious you feel something towards Sarah Connor. I wondered if you wished to discuss it. I am here in the capacity of a supportive ear."
Darien smiled as he pulled the car to the curb. "Thanks, Selma. It's nice to know that, but I'm fine for now. I barely know Sarah, and we have bigger problems to work out."
He only took a few steps forward when suddenly he noticed that Sarah's Place was not where he left it. Hurrying towards the arcade where he had first sighted her florist shop, Darien found himself standing before a storefront whose name was Allens Book Store. For a moment, he considered whether he had the wrong address, but Selma confirmed he was in the right place. The landmarks were the same, and except for the florist shop, everything was as he remembered it yesterday.
The ripple! It had come without him being aware of it! "She's gone. The ripple! It's happened."
"That is most disturbing. I was not aware of any significant shift."
"Consider us lucky, I suppose. Can you tap into current records on Sarah Connor?"
"If she exists in this current timeline, I shall be able to find her," Selma said, trying to sound hopeful for his benefit.
Darien wandered through the arcade, still astonished she slipped through his fingers without his being aware of it. Even though he had only met the woman a day ago, her absence stung, and Darien felt the loss, making him more determined to fulfil his promise to her.
Sitting at a park bench across the street from the arcade, Darien tried to imagine what other changes had taken place. The ripple had come and gone, and the world seemed no different for the experience, except for Sarah's disappearance.
"Captain, I found the information.”
"Selma, you're a lifesaver Where is she?"
"She is a school teacher working not far from here. According to the records she is still unmarried and lives in Reseda."
"Okay," he nodded. "Nothing too drastic. What about John?"
"There is no record of a John Conner being born to Sarah Jeanette Connor."
"What?" Darien blinked. "How can that be?"
Sarah explained the sequence of events leading to Judgement Day and beyond.
In the future she knew, John Connor would send Kyle Reese back to the past to impregnate his mother. It was a predestination paradox if Darien ever heard one. Skynet aided its own destruction when it sent a Terminator back in time to assassinate Sarah Connor because it assumed, John's father was also from the same time period. In doing so, it caused John to be conceived as well as provide Sarah a preview of the future.
If Kyle Reese did not come back, then there was no John Connor.
"Selma, what do we know about Kyle Reese?"
"Captain, he has not been born yet." Selma pointed out.
"I know that, but your database is unaffected by the change in the timeline so your records would still extend to the 22nd century we came from. The records of who he was, was not destroyed in any nuclear war in our timeline so his genealogical data should still be there.”
"That is logical." She answered, finding no flaw in his reasoning. "I am searching for the data."
While Selma sought for any record on Kyle Reese present or future, Darien pondered the ramifications of John Connor never being born and how it affected his own destiny. Sarah averted Judgment Day by contacting Miles Dyson and revealing his creation would mean for the world. Dyson, who believed he was creating something for the betterment of humanity, was unwilling to be responsible for its destruction. With Sarah's help, the brave scientist destroyed all work about the SAC NORAD project that would become Skynet and thus saved the world from a nuclear holocaust.
Now, none of that had happened, which meant Dyson was still alive at this moment, creating the world's first sentient artificial life form and dooming three billion people to die on Judgement Day.
"I have the information, Captain." Selma interrupted his grim thoughts.
"Good," he swallowed, not liking the conclusions he had reached on his own. "What have you got?"
"Kyle Reese lived a long and healthy life according to the records in our timeline. He was born in the year 2010 and had descendants up to the 22nd century. However, I have cross-referenced this genealogy with the same data of this reality and found in this timeline, his lineage was terminated in 1878."
"1878?" Darien sat up in surprise at this new twist. "You're kidding."
"I do not joke on such matters, Captain," Selma said with some annoyance. "If the cross-referencing is accurate, Kyle Reese's last ancestor in this timeline would have been a gunslinger who was in residence at a small frontier town in New Mexico."
"Any details on how he died?"
"I would think that the cause of death for a gunslinger as such men were called, is somewhat academic."
Darien frowned at the obvious sarcasm Selma would never admit to possessing. "In our timeline, did this ancestor die the same way?"
There was a pause as Selma searched her data banks for the information. "Apparently not. In our timeline, he lives to a ripe old age and passes on early in the 1920s."
Darien had more or less expected the answer as it now became clear what had happened to alter the timeline so radically. Skynet, who failed to erase John's existence through his mother, had instead turned its attention to the boy's father. However, to ensure there was not a repeat of the predestination paradox allowing John to be born, it sent the Terminator to a time period where it was virtually invulnerable against the weapons of the day. Where the death could be explained naturally, and no one would still be alive to avert Judgement Day.
"Then to stop it you must travel back in time as well." Selma guessed what conclusion he was reaching.
"Somehow, I've got to find a way to reach him. I've got to stop this Terminator from killing..." Darien realised Selma had not told him the gunslinger's name. "Who is this guy?"
"His name is Christopher Larabee."
Deals with the Devil
It was almost two years since Darien Lambert last encountered Doctor Mordecai Sahmbi, and Darien swore then if he ever met the doctor again, it would be for the last time.
With the disruption to the timeline and the approach of Judgement Day without John Connor imminent, Darien knew he had to set aside his old hatreds for the good of all.
Following his return from California, Darien's course was clear. With Skynet erasing the entire family line of Kyle Reese, John's father, from 1878 onwards, the young resistance hero would never be sent back to fall in love with Sarah Connor. Thanks to Selma's records of Reese's genealogy from the 22nd century, Darien was able to pinpoint the exact moment Skynet sent his final Terminator to the past. Christopher Larabee, who should have lived to a ripe old age, was murdered prematurely in 1878 in a small town in New Mexico.
And because of that, Darien's future would never exist.
Under normal circumstances, Darien would have contacted TRAX control to help him solve this crisis, but with the 22nd century a dystopian machine nightmare, TRAX control no longer existed. With no other alternative, Darien needed the one man who might be able to help him get to Larabee. No matter what Darien felt about him, Sahmbi, the inventor of time travel and by extension TRAX, was his only hope of saving the future.
Utilising every contact he had, Darien knew he was courting disaster by reaching out to Sahmbi, but he had no choice.
More than a week after he began his search to contact Sahmbi, Darien found himself waiting in a dark alley in the dead of night. As he paced the crack of space in between two abandoned buildings, he made sure his weapons were nestled safely in its holster while Selma kept a vigil on the surrounding area. The AI would warn him of trouble long before it arrived.
Finally, twenty minutes after the appointed time of their pre-arranged meeting, Darien heard the rumble of car engines coming down the street. Sahmbi's choice of meeting place left something to be desired, but then Darien suspected the man wanted somewhere isolated to gun him down in case Darien was trying to ambush him.
"Captain, I detect three men approaching this location."
"Okay." Darien took a breath and immediately regretted it because he could smell the foul odour of garbage wafting from a nearby dumpster. Checking his gun once more, he steeled himself for the meeting he did not look forward to having.
"Captain, are you sure this is a wise idea?" Selma's voice exuded concern.
"Not at all,” he answered, hearing the slamming of car doors in the distance before he listened to the approach of footsteps distinct from the rats scurrying along the grey walls, feasting on garbage and refuse. "But I don't have much choice. The only person who can help us get back to 1878 is Sahmbi."
"But you cannot assume Doctor Sahmbi will assist you, even if there is a way to send you back to that time period."
"True, but Sahmbi has got as much to lose if Judgement Day is seven months away.”
The footsteps were very close now, and Darien saw three figures emerge from the darkness into the light of the streetlamp under which he was standing. The two men who were flanking the doctor were well-armed beneath their long coats. They were also tall and muscled. No doubt perfect specimens of 22nd-century genetic enhancement. Sahmbi, on the other hand, did not look as well preserved. His thinning hairline was grey, and there were more lines on his craggy features.
Darien stared at him, forcing away the memory of how this man killed Elyssa so long ago and changed the course of his life in one terrible stroke. Desperation was the only reason for this temporary truce, but his hatred and anger remained, stuck in his throat like bile. Forcing himself to remember the importance of this meeting, Darien fought the urge to shoot him with a TXP pellet and send the man back to the 22nd century, now they were meeting face to face.
"Darien Lambert, it's been a long time,” Sahmbi greeted him first. “To what do I owe the honour of this meeting?"
"First of all, you can relax Sahmbi, I don't intend to bring you in," Darien displayed his palms in a gesture of conciliation. He hated this situation, but God help him, he needed Sahmbi. The doctor appeared just as cautious, and Darien suspected, Sahmbi was here out of curiosity more than anything else. Like every scientist, the man was drawn to riddles, and Darien's request for a truce would definitely qualify.
"Not that you could." The doctor was indifferent to Darien's gesture and glanced at the two men beside him. To prove his point, they exposed the insides of their coats just enough to show Darien their weapons as a warning to him to not try anything foolish.
"I didn't come here to fight," Darien repeated, deciding he was not going to get into pointless posturing with the doctor. "Something's happened Sahmbi, something that affects us all. There's been a corruption of the timeline."
The seriousness of the matter showed in Sahmbi's reaction. The man's brow furrowed, and he stared at Darien hard, trying to decide if the time cop was trying to trick him.
"How badly?" He asked after a moment, realising now why Darien would resort to this meeting.
"An officer from the Fugitive Retrieval Unit risked a third exposure to TXP, just to come back and tell me a machine civilisation now inhabits the 22nd century. Humanity, as we know it, is extinct." Darien held nothing back.
While Sahmbi managed his reaction, Darien saw the alarm crossing the faces of the two men beside him. The idea the future would become a nightmarish world of sentient mechanisation was a terrifying possibility. While Darien decided a mostly full disclosure was necessary at this point, he held back Sarah and John's part in this drama. If he was to reset the timeline, he had no intention of allowing Sahmbi to use them for his own purposes later on.
Sahmbi listened intently, saying nothing as Darien told him about Skynet and Judgment Day, which was now seven short months away. When he finished, he noticed Sahmbi's men were decidedly nervous, in contrast to the doctor who remained calm as ever.
"Do you have any other proof beyond this woman's word this nuclear holocaust is coming?"
"Warburton died bringing the news to me. I saw what a third exposure of TXP did to him Sahmbi. Nobody risks that for nothing. What he saw terrified him enough to come back and warn me. Also, Miles Dyson, who died three years ago while blowing up the Cyberdyne building in our timeline, is now alive. The Cyberdyne facility is also very much intact, and as we speak, Dyson is working on a top-secret project for the US government."
For the first time, Sahmbi looked troubled. He escaped into time for a new life, but he always warned those he sent to the 20th century the dangers of meddling with history. Alter one event and one might find themselves erased from existence or worse. It was one thing to take advantage of their knowledge of future events to become self-sufficient, but it was another thing to manipulate its course. Time was a fragile thing, and small ripples could culminate into earth-shattering repercussions.
"Assuming any of this is true, what do you need from me?" Sahmbi looked at him, finally reaching the heart of the matter.
"I think the focal point is a man called Larabee. His entire lineage was wiped out starting from the late 1800s. According to the records of our timeline, his descendants survived in the 22nd century. Whatever's happened, it started with him."
"That does make some sense, although I would prefer more concrete evidence on which to base that assumption." Sahmbi sounded very much more like a scholar now than a criminal genius. He was starting to see where Darien was going with this line of reasoning, but he would nevertheless enjoy hearing his nemesis ask first.
"I need to be able to go back to the 1800s and keep this ancestor of Reese's from being killed. I need the best mind in temporal mechanics for that." Darien wondered if Sahmbi had any idea how hard it was to say those words, let alone keep from beating the crap out of the doctor and sending him on his way. Every time he looked at Sahmbi, images of Elyssa dying while he watched helplessly revisited him.
"I am flattered," Sahmbi said with a brow raised. "It was not easy coming to me, I imagine."
Darien's eyes were almost black when he answered. "You have no idea. I still want to kill you for what you did to Elyssa."
For the first time, Sahmbi's expression darkened. "Likewise, Darien. She was always mine first."
"Elyssa didn't belong to either of us, and she didn't deserve to die for that."
"An argument for another time," Sahmbi snorted, aware their détente would fracture if they continued to discuss the woman they both loved…and lost. “I have no guarantee anything you say is true, but I am unprepared to take the risk this Judgement Day of yours is false. TXP is capable of shielding us from the temporal flux, which is why it is so perfect for time travel, so that much of your story is true. I also know you despise me with every fibre of your being and coming to me for help means you're desperate enough to ignore your vengeance. If nothing else Darien, I trust your hate."
Darien was not going to argue with this twisted piece of logic. "So the question is, what can you do about it?"
"I can do quite a bit if you are ready to take a ride with me."
Darien knew he would have to trust Sahmbi if the man was going to help him. He'd come this far already. Darien needed to suspend his innate hatred of the scientist a little longer to see what Sahmbi intended to show him. If he wanted to help Sarah and John Connor, he'd have to.
"Alright," he nodded, hoping this was not a fatal mistake. "Let's take a ride."
Sahmbi's idea of a ride was slightly more complicated than that.
Travelling in a stretched limousine, Darien accompanied Sahmbi to the nearest airport where a chartered jet was waiting. Thanks to regular trips to the bathroom where he could confer with Selma, Darien learned Sahmbi was taking them towards Reno, Nevada.
Both men kept their conversation focussed on the time ripple and the corruption taken place, wisely avoiding the subject of Elyssa. Utilising the onboard computer on Sahmbi's plane, Darien and the doctor were able to learn the SAC NORAD system Miles Dyson created was well on its way to being integrated into the US defence network computers.
In less than seven months, the system would come online, and Skynet would be born. According to Sarah, twenty days after its initialisation, Skynet would become self-aware and decide the fate of humanity on August the 29th, and Judgment Day would become a reality.
After setting down at a private airport in Reno, another limousine awaited and drove them to a large warehouse on the outskirts of the garish city.
The warehouse was protected by a state of the art security system. Barbed wire, electrified fences kept under surveillance by the security cameras installed to keep trespassers off the premises. The grounds were further patrolled by security guards carrying heavy assault rifles, accompanied by well-trained dogs. As the limousine passed through the sentries, Darien wondered what on Earth Sahmbi had hidden away here.
They finally entered the main warehouse, passing through more security checkpoints, where Darien observed everything from motion detectors to air density and temperature sensors, as well as alarms attached to pressure plates on the floor. Supplementing all these measures were the guards at almost every corner. What the hell was the man hiding away in this place? More importantly, how had he found the financing to pay for all this?
"Well Sahmbi," Darien admitted as they stood before a metal door with the thickness of a vault hatch. "I'm intrigued. What's behind the door?"
Sahmbi allowed himself a smile as he leaned forward to the door panel, which promptly conducted a retinal scan of his right eye.
“Identity confirmed. Welcome, Doctor Sambhi.”
The locking mechanism disengaged, and the solid door swung open, allowing them entry.
The moment Darien looked inside the room, he understood at last what Sahmbi was protecting with such secrecy. Although the memory was four years behind him, Darien remembered every detail of it with utmost clarity. He saw a dozen people in white coats, going about their business at various computer terminals. Everyone turned to the doctor at his arrival, but Darien saw nothing except the machine occupying the centre of the room.
"TRAX." He exclaimed before shooting Sahmbi an icy glare. The Transtime Research and experimentation unit was precisely as he remembered, and judging by the state of it, the device was fully operational.
"It's taken me two years of funding to complete," Sahmbi said undeniably proud of it as he walked towards the TRAX machine.
"How did you pay for it?" Darien demanded until he remembered how Sahmbi acquired his funding back in the 22nd century. Sending criminals back to the 20th century was not cheap, but it was better than chasing grants, Darien supposed.
"You don't seriously expect me to answer that question, do you?” Sahmbi shot him a look. "Just be grateful it is fully functioning and will have no trouble sending you back to the 19th century.”
Darien frowned. He did not like the ominous implications of those words but decided Sahmbi was correct. He ought to be grateful there was a way to return to the past and repair the damaged timeline.
"How grateful should I be for a one-way trip?" Darien sniped, realising if he did go back to 1878, it would be to stay. The possibility loomed in his mind for almost a week but did not seem real until this moment.
"Well, that may not necessarily be the case if you wish to play my guinea pig," Sahmbi said smugly as Darien followed him to the TRAX device. "Until now, the TXP dosage has been limited to two teleportation trips. However, I have been working these past three years to refine the process. I understand you were exposed only once."
"That's right," Darien answered, trying not to get his hopes up when the source of it was Sahmbi. Darien supposed if anyone could devise a way for him to return to the 19th century, it would be the scientist. However, Darien wished his only way back did not rely on placing his trust in the doctor with whom he shared a blood feud.
Sahmbi paused at the workbench and pulled out a vial of white powdery substance sitting in a test tube rack. "This batch is experimental, and I have yet to test it on a human subject. You will be happy to know the results with laboratory animals have proven encouraging." He smiled, obviously enjoying Darien's discomfort. "However, the data does show the TXP has none of the previous toxic effects. So you may be able to make a round trip without the risk of cellular degradation."
"How do I know this isn't a trick?" Darien eyed him suspiciously. If Sahmbi wanted to get rid of him once and for all, this was the perfect opportunity.
Sahmbi sighed wearily as if he was dealing with a petulant child.
"Believe me, if I wanted to kill you, I would find a more expedient way than using a million-dollar machine. Now, I am willing to send you back in time and forward again because it benefits me to do so. I do not wish to see my hard work these past four years come to an end in a scant seven months, nor do I wish to exist in the 1800s, as enchanting as the idea might seem. Since the 22nd century is no longer what it used to be, it appears I must trust you are capable of correcting the timeline."
He had a point, even though admitting it left a terrible taste in Darien's mouth. "I guess I don't have a choice, do I?"
Sahmbi looked at him with dark eyes. "I guess not."
And the truth was, Darien didn't.
20th July 1878 — Four Corners, New Mexico
God, she loved this man.
Mary Travis found herself thinking this as they just lay together in her bed, the sheet plastered against their bodies, holding each other after their heated love making. They were always quiet after because words were unnecessary after such intimacies.
For his part, Chris marvelled at how the passion between them felt as intense and fiery as their first time together. Even when he thought he was utterly drained, just lying next to her made him want her again and again. Chris knew he would never tire of Mary.
If every outlaw in the Territory were to come busting through the door at this instant, Chris would probably light a cheroot and tell them to take a number.
"Feeling better?" He whispered in her ear as they spooned. Chris loved the smell of her skin after sex.
"I feel terribly refreshed, Mr Larabee." Satisfaction dripping off every word.
"I aim to please ma'am." He joked and heard her laugh, pleased she was feeling better.
The last few days had seen her under the weather, and the dark shadows under her eyes gave him reason for concern. It hardly surprised him she should be so exhausted, considering her routine. Aside from running the Clarion News, Billy had home from school break requiring Mary to juggle her responsibilities as mother and businesswoman.
Fortunately, Chris was able to lighten the load somewhat since the boy delighted in spending time with him, and spent much of his break with Chris. This morning, they had put the boy on the stage back to his grandparents, allowing Chris and Mary to share each other's bed for the first time in weeks.
"You are so accommodating." She smiled warmly, aware he was worried and wished she could allay his fears, but how could she when she felt just as anxious.
She supposed that it was inevitable this would happen. After all, how many nights like this had they shared since that first time? Her behaviour was hardly proper. She knew that, but he was so addictive, and her love for him clouded her better judgment. Things like reputation and propriety seemed so trivial and mundane when she was with him.
Mary knew Chris wanted to marry her because he was uncomfortable with the situation as it stood. He was mindful of her reputation in Four Corners and worried their nightly dalliances might become public knowledge. It had been in danger of becoming so some short weeks ago when Victoria Kendall had tried to avenge herself onhim.
Now the long engagement she hoped for would not be possible.
It wasn't that she didn't want to marry Chris. She did. It was just that it took so long for Mary to learn independence and self-reliance. For the first time in her life, she was making decisions for herself, and not waiting for a man to decide them for her. It was relinquishing this power which made her hesitate walking down the aisle.
However, if what she suspected was right, the decision was no longer in either of their hands.
Since his arrival in Four Corners, Vin Tanner no longer spent as many nights on the open plains as he would like. While he had a wagon which he retreated to at night, the occasions when Vin would camp out in the wilderness dwindled since he arrived at Four Corners. While he enjoyed the camaraderie of the seven, he was by nature a solitary man and missed the quiet of his bounty hunting days where he spent long periods alone.
Chris understood Vin's need to saddle up and go riding off for a spell, aware the responsibility he sometimes placed on the younger man's shoulders weighed Vin down. Fortunately, with Chris spending more nights in town lately, Vin was able to leave without having to worry about trouble cropping up unexpectedly.
Summer was in its last days, with the air just warm enough to enjoy without being stifling hot. Lying against his bedroll before the fire, Vin enjoyed the hours alone with his thoughts and the sounds of the wilderness lulled him into a comforting sleep. Lately, his need for solitude had become insistent, mainly because he was in an untenable situation he knew not how to escape. Being out here allowed him to wrestle with the dilemma and entertain the feelings he hid so well from everyone.
His present situation surfaced memories of Charlotte, remembering how they made love under the stars on a night not too dissimilar to this one. He wondered what she was doing and hoped she was happy in the life she chose for herself. She was the first woman he'd ever truly loved, and even though he was thinking about someone else these days, Vin still remembered of her fondly.
The sudden appearance of a lightning storm on an otherwise clear night captured Vin's attention. The tracker raised his gaze from the fire crackling in the middle of his campsite to the distant plains. He could see spidery webs of blue, flashing sporadically in quick succession as the sky came alive with colour. Strange, he thought looking up into the air and saw not one cloud. Another clap of thunder sent Peso into a fit of panic, the horse's fearful neighing causing Vin to get to his feet to tend to the animal.
"Easy there," his hand stroked the long bridge of Peso's nose. The gesture calmed the animal somewhat but not enough to remove the fear he saw in the horse's brown eyes.
"It's okay," Vin cooed soothingly. "It's just a little lightning."
Okay, it was a little lightning and thunder coming out of nowhere. Especially in a sky without a trace of cloud or rain for that matter. It was a little strange. After a moment, Vin realised he wasn't just trying to calm Peso but himself as well.
There was something noticeable in the air. Vin could smell burning but knew it wasn't from his fire. The scent was all wrong. It lacked the sooty stench of a wood burn. Years ago, he took a ride on a train and recalled the smell of heated iron. The air now reeked of that same stench. Peso began to get nervous again, the gelding's front legs stamping the ground as it struggled to be free of Vin's grip on his reins.
"Okay, settle down," he told the animal firmly. "Now you're making me nervous."
Vin held fast to the reins because the horse was becoming so anxious if he released the leather, Peso would bolt, and Vin didn't relish the walk back to Four Corners.
Looking in the direction of the strange lightning, Vin saw everything had returned to its previous state of calm, but Peso was still a nervous bundle. The animal's agitation didn't improve his own mood since he knew they were seldom wrong about their instincts for trouble.
The man came up behind him without making a sound.
Vin was so preoccupied with settling his horse, he did not notice until the very last minute. The tracker heard no footsteps or any of the familiar noises that came with human approach. When he glimpsed the man in the corner of his eye, Vin almost jumped out of his skin. It was the first time in his life Vin ever experienced someone sneaking up on him like that.
One minute, he was alone, and a second later, he was not.
First and most obviously, the man was buck naked. He looked like the day he'd come into this world, without a single stitch on him. Naked on the plains took Vin a few seconds to process before another realisation dawned on Vin. He was big. Not tall, or fat but big. Thanks to his nudity, Vin saw thick, bulging muscles that made his own lean, compact form appear positively scrawny. In his time, Vin encountered lumberjacks with less bulk.
"Howdy," Vin greeted hastily, still wrestling with Peso who was behaving like he'd gotten into some locoweed.
The man did not speak. His dark eyes studied Vin without expression, tilting his head as if he were examining the tracker from all angles.
"What happened to your clothes?" Vin asked through Peso's indignant snorts, thinking it wouldn't be an inappropriate question since it was a fairly obvious observation.
The man didn't respond, continuing to wear the expressionless mask that only served to make Vin nervous. While the stranger remained silent, Vin noticed his eyes were studying everything.
"Are you alright, Mister?" Vin tried again, thinking perhaps he might have gotten hurt out here. "Do you need a ride into town or something?"
Although by the way his horse was behaving, continuing to fret as it neighed and stamped its hoofs almost frantically, it might not be an offer Vin could deliver. Something was spooking his usually reliable companion, and Vin had no idea what it could be.
What's gotten into you, boy?" He tried to soothe the animal since this was the worst possible time for Peso to have a fit.
"Your clothes." The man spoke for the first time. "I need them."
"What?" Vin shot him a look of astonishment. "Listen mister, I got problems of my own. If you care to wait a minute, I'll help you with yours, but right now, I'm a little busy."
When the tracker was momentarily distracted by Peso, the man crossed the distance between them and grabbed Vin by the neck. His large hand caught Vin by the throat and lifted him off the ground as if the tracker weighed nothing. Struggling to breathe as his toes of his boots dangled over the gravel, Vin went for his Winchester to shove it in the man's chest with every intention of pulling the trigger.
Peso bolted as soon as Vin lost his grip on the reins and Vin was aware of hoofbeats galloping away as he was tossed aside like a rag doll. The mare's leg fell from his hand, landing on its butt and discharging once, the boom sounding like thunder on the flat, empty plains. Vin lay face down in the sand, trying to catch his breath through his aching throat, painfully aware he was unarmed as he reached for the knife he hid in his boot for emergencies. He never got a chance to retrieve it because the man threw a kick squarely at his face. The power behind it sent him reeling backwards, his cheek flaring in pain.
As Vin felt the grit on his tongue that might have been bits of back teeth, he was overcome with a bout of nausea when his mouth filled with blood. The man approached again, relentless in his attack but eerily silent. Vin kicked out his foot and struck a knee, intending to bring the big bastard down. The stranger barely flinched.
Scrambling to his feet, Vin rushed at him until the man swung out with one of those bulging arms, striking him with a backhanded blow so hard, Vin felt his entire world blackout with pain. This time there was no recovery as Vin Tanner collapsed, unconscious before he even hit the dirt.
The Terminator studied the human for a moment before his dark eyes scanned the area for the weapon that fell away. He picked up the rifle and identified the gun immediately.
WINCHESTER - LEVER ACTION MARE'S LEG RIFLE
CALIBRE - 12GA-2.75"
TRIGGER SYSTEM - SINGLE
FRONT SIGHT - BEAD
SAFETY - NONE
LEVER STYLE - STANDARD
The weapon was crude but functional and would serve until the Terminator was able to find something better. Approaching the unconscious man, the Terminator studied him for a second before reaching for his clothes.
Darien opened his eyes and squinted at the sunlight.
The sky was blue, and the sun was still shining as it had since time began. Sitting up, Darien surveyed the terrain before him. It was parched and dry, though he could see trees in the distance and plains covered with sunburnt grass. Birds chirped distantly, while crickets welcomed him back to consciousness.
The emptiness of the landscape made him feel like the only person in the world.
"Christ." Darien Lambert swore when he finally recovered from the effects of temporal displacement. He was never prepared for it, no matter what he told himself. Who could ever be used to their atoms being deconstructed and then reassembled after making a voyage through time and space? It was just something they did not cover at the Academy, or maybe they did, and he just didn't show up for class.
"Okay Lambert, let's not get trippy.”
"Captain, are you alright?" Selma's clear, crisp voice cut through the silence of the chilly morning and made him wince. At least he thought it was morning anyway. Studying the sun's position in the sky, it appeared he was right.
"Fine." He grimaced slightly, ignoring the throbbing inside his skull. Although it was fading quickly, Darien still felt like miles of bad road.
When his disorientation finally eased, Darien took stock of his surroundings. If Sahmbi's machine worked, he was somewhere close to the town in the area of what would be New Mexico. He wished there was some way to know for sure but guessed he'd have to wait until he got to town.
"Just suffering a little jet lag."
"The term is hardly an approximation."
"I've got too much of a headache to argue Selma." He got to his feet and stretched. Noticing the equipment that came with him, Darien headed towards it. "Can you extrapolate where we are?"
"Yes," she answered to his relief. "If Doctor Sahmbi's coordinates are to be believed, then the town of Four Corners should lie four kilometres in a northwesterly direction."
"I guess I'm walking." He knelt by the length of the wooden box at his feet. Sarah's description of the Terminator told him he could not possibly face the thing with the six-shooters people carried in this day and age. Honestly, Darien was not even sure if what he brought with him would suffice. He hoped Sarah's description of the Terminator being unstoppable was an exaggeration.
"I'll have to come back for this later."
"Captain, it is unwise to leave it behind. Should anyone happen upon this, it could have severe repercussions on future events."
"I know, I know." Darien was familiar with the argument. "Relax Selma. I've got it covered. I got Sahmbi to include a portable holographic projector on our party list."
"I question the trustworthiness of Doctor Sahmbi. He has proven himself to be a most dishonest personality."
"You and me both Selma," Darien answered as he began to pull open the lid of the box. Rummaging through the contents, he found the object he was searching for and used both hands to remove it. "However, at this moment, we haven't got a lot of choices, and he got us this far, didn't he?"
"I am still uncertain if this far is where we wished to go."
Darien allowed himself a smile, wondering at what point his scepticism rubbed off on Selma because he never remembered her being so pessimistic.
Darien believed Sahmbi financed his small empire by using his newly built TRAX control to send escaping prisoners backwards and forwards in time. However, the truth was much more straightforward. Sahmbi been selling patents on inventions from the 22nd century. Although they were objects of relatively minor importance and were accepted for their entertainment value like the projector, it was enough to make the Doctor quite wealthy without resorting to crime.
Setting it up, Darien activated the device before the box and everything in its immediate vicinity disappeared behind the illusion of a fallen tree trunk. The projector had a battery life of no more than 48 hours, and that was all the time Darien had to return here and retrieve his equipment.
"That does it for now." Darien stepped out of the projection field. The image shimmered as he walked through it, stabilising once he was clear. From a distance, there was nothing suspicious about it and it faded into the landscape. Darien hoped it would suffice as adequate camouflage until he could return with a wagon or whatever it was they used in this place for transportation.
Beginning the walk towards town, Darien wished he'd brought a hat. Why hadn't he thought of it? The boots on his feet didn't feel comfortable for walking, and he wished he was wearing his sneakers.
"Okay, Selma," he said finally. "Let's go find Mr Larabee."
"Where is he?"
JD felt like a trophy to be mounted as Jasper Cray held him pressed against the wall of Ezra's saloon. The young sheriff knew he could quickly resolve this situation by drawing on Jasper, but he was hoping to avoid going that route unless he really had to. Jasper was pissed as hell, and he had reason to be, which was why JD just didn't feel right about shooting him.
"Come on, Jasper!” JD declared, clutching Jasper's wrists as the man held him up. "I ain't seen Buck all morning!"
As soon as the words left his lips, JD swore at his stupidity.
"I know where he was this morning!" Jasper slammed JD into the wall again. "He was with my wife!"
JD cursed under his strangled breath, wondering how many times Buck would find himself in this situation before it sunk in married women were bad news. JD was young and his experience with ladies was limited to tomboys, but even he knew married women came with husbands who got pretty mad when you kept company with their wives. Especially when they came home early and caught their wives in bed with a man other than themselves like Jasper did this morning.
"I'm sorry, but I don't know anything!" JD croaked weakly, knowing it was a lame excuse even if it was the truth. JD had no idea where Buck Wilmington was at this moment. Hopefully, if the older man had any sense at all, he would stay out of sight until Jasper calmed down.
Jasper stood a head over Buck who was the tallest of the seven, was a bear of a man with tree trunk arms and a jealous streak a mile wide. At the moment, Jasper had it in his mind to do some serious dismembering, and JD had no idea how to talk him out of it.
"Look, Jasper, if you don't put me down, I'm going to have to lock you up."
The look Jasper gave him told JD what the man thought about that, and he prepared to pull back his enormous fist. Deciding he did not want to look like pulp, JD reached for his gun, having no interest in seeing what those knuckles would do to his face.
"I suggest you stand down Mr Cray,”
Ezra Standish was standing behind Jasper. The derringer usually concealed beneath his jacket sleeve was pressed firmly against the cuckold's side. Jasper threw a sidelong glance at Ezra whose calm was a stark contrast to the storm raging in Jasper's eyes.
"This ain't got nothing to do with you," Jasper warned, not wholly unmindful of the cold steel against his skin.
"And it has nothing to do with my young friend either." Ezra countered. "You are bothering my friends and my customers, so I would like you and your marital problems to depart from the presence of both."
"I want Wilmington!" Jasper growled and his grip around JD's throat slackening somewhat. The focus of his anger was now aimed directly at Ezra, although he was not as eager to act upon it as he had with JD.
"Mr Wilmington," Ezra let his gaze sweep across the saloon where Josiah Sanchez and Nathan Jackson were keeping a close watch on the proceedings in case their assistance was required. "As you can see, is absent."
Jasper let JD go, and he dropped to the floor with a thud. The young man was on his feet quickly, the relief on his face becoming annoyance. JD moved away from Jasper and took up position behind Ezra, while the gambler continued the standoff.
"Now you can cool off and have a drink on the house," Ezra said politely. "Or you can leave."
Jasper glared at Ezra, considering the options before him. Although Jasper was justifiably enraged, he had enough sense to know he would likely end up in worse shape if he chose to push the point. An unfaithful wife was something he could get over eventually, but a confrontation with a man who had the drop on you was another thing entirely.
"Drinks are watered anyway," Jasper pat and pushed his way through Ezra and JD before storming towards the door. "You tell Wilmington this ain't over!"
It took a moment for the commotion to die away, with patrons watching the excitement, returning their attention to their drinks or the various entertainments of the saloon, now the show was over.
Ezra let out a deep breath and turned to JD. "Are you alright, my young friend?"
"I've been better," JD grumbled, disliking the fact someone had to come to his rescue.
"Where is Buck anyway?" Nathan inquired now Jasper was gone, and the disclosure wouldn't cause any of his friends to suffer an injury at the hands of the behemoth, now stalking the streets of Four Corners in search of his quarry.
"He and Chris had to deliver Ben Davies to Bitter Creek." Josiah drawled, returning his attention to the book he was reading. Ben Davies was an outlaw who drifted into Four Corners with several outstanding warrants on his head for cattle rustling. Early this morning, Chris and Buck set out to deliver the rustler to Bitter Creek, despite the man's protestations of innocence.
"I hear he volunteered," Nathan sniggered, understanding why now.
"If you had that monster running after you," Ezra said, returning to their table. "Wouldn't you?"
"I can't believe Buck would be afraid of that ape!" JD exclaimed, straightening his collar as he sat down and looked curiously at what Josiah was reading. Despite himself, JD could not shake Jasper's stinging insult to his pride in front of an entire room full of people. He was sitting at the table with his friends when Jasper came up behind him and dragged him away like a sack of potatoes.
"He better be," Josiah shook his head in disapproval. “Nothing fires a man's rage more than the love of a woman. Buck should know better than to involve himself with Mrs Cray, no matter how fetching she may appear."
No one could disagree with that since Mrs Cray was a beautiful woman indeed with her strawberry gold hair and her smouldering blue eyes. She was shaped voluptuously and was known to be extremely accommodating. While her conquests were infamous across town, it was with Buck, who Jasper caught her with this morning.
"If Buck knows what's good for him he'll steer clear of both of the Crays for the next month," Nathan remarked.
"Mr Wilmington is about as capable of staying away from the fair Mrs Cray as a moth does from an open fire," Ezra smirked at his comrades. "He cannot help himself."
JD was about to respond in Buck's defence because he felt it his duty to for some strange reason when suddenly, he saw Vin stagger in through the batwing doors. His shock forced the rest of the seven to follow his gaze. Nathan was out of his chair in an instant. The healer wasted no time crossing the floor of the saloon to reach the bounty hunter first. The saloon fell quiet as Vin stumble in barefoot, clad only in a pair of pants, his buckskin coat and slouch hat, with blood caked on the side of his face and a dark bruise forming under one eye.
"What the hell happened to you?" Nathan demanded.
"Some son of a bitch stole my clothes!" Vin snapped with uncharacteristic anger before sinking into the nearest chair.
If it hadn't been for Peso returning to him hours later, Vin would still be lying out there in the openFortunately, his saddlebags contained a spare pair of pants, and the stranger had discarded the buckskin coat, so he was spared the indignity of returning to town naked.
"That looks nasty," Nathan stated, examining the split skin just below Vin's eye. He had been struck very hard indeed, and the healer did not doubt Vin was suffering a possible concussion, not to mention a very bruised face.
"Who did this to you?" Josiah demanded as the others came to the side of their injured comrade.
"I don't know!" Vin grumbled, wincing as Nathan examined the swelling on his cheek. "He just came out of nowhere, naked as the day he was born, and told me he needed my clothes."
The whole encounter was so unnerving because Vin couldn't understand it.
"I never saw him before."
"A white man?" Josiah probed further.
"Yeah." Vin nodded as Nathan stepped back, having concluded his preliminary examination.
"Come on," Nathan prompted. "You need to have that sewn up." He gestured to the gash on Vin's swollen cheek.
"I'm fine," Vin mumbled, his eyes searching the table for a glass once he discovered the half-filled bottle on it. He poured himself a glass of whisky and tried to drink it down quickly until the liquid stung the raw flesh inside his mouth so severely, he spat the fluid in all directions, causing the others to step back to avoid the spray.
"Not that fine." Nathan placed his hand on Vin's shoulder to indicate he was not about to tolerate further arguments.
"Come on Mr Tanner," Ezra took Vin's other arm in a show of agreement with Nathan's diagnosis. "We promise to do nothing until you return."
Vin muttered in annoyance as he was escorted out of the saloon with Nathan and Ezra, to ensure he didn't change his mind on the way to the infirmary. It was rare when anything disagreed with the ordinarily stoic Mr Tanner to this extent, and even if his friends were aware of what he was capable of when he was truly fired up.
"I can walk fine." He tried to dislodge Ezra and Nathan's grip from his arms.
"You keep complaining, and I'll send you to Doctor Styles." Nathan teased, knowing how much Vin hated dealing with the lady doctor. The tracker and the doctor's arguments were becoming legendary. Another uncharacteristic trait none of them were accustomed to seeing from the tracker lately.
"That's not funny." Vin glared at him. "That woman is meaner than a rattlesnake."
"I'll have you know Alexandra is nothing but sweet." Ezra immediately rose to the lady's defence.
"Yeah right," Vin drawled unhappily as they left the saloon. "To another rattlesnake."
“You are pregnant.”
There it was, the final nail in the coffin. Mary let out a breath, unaware she was holding it. Her nails dug into the armrest of the chair she was sitting across from Alex's desk until there were crescent-shaped indentations in the fabric. When she came to see Alex in the doctor's newly established clinic, Mary arrived in the vain hope Alex might tell her she was wrong, that she was suffering an ailment other than the one she suspected.
After a quick examination, Alex gave Mary an answer, but it wasn't the one she hoped for.
"I don't see the problem," Alex spoke, aware of Mary's relationship with Chris enough to know the man would receive the news with delight. Although Alex found Chris Larabee intimidating as hell, she did know one thing for sure. There was nothing he wouldn't do for Mary. "He loves you. I have the impression he would be thrilled."
"He probably would be," Mary admitted. Alex was right. Chris would love the idea of being a father again. Mary only had to see how wonderful he was with Billy to know that. Even if he rarely voiced it, Mary knew Chris enjoyed the time he spent with her son. Buck told Mary how much Chris adored Adam before the boy's tragic death, and she had no doubt Chris would feel the same at the possibility of another child.
Except it was not Chris with the problem, it was Mary herself.
The idea of a baby filled her with fear so stark she could hardly breathe. In a few short months, everything she worked so hard to achieve would disintegrate in the gurgle of a baby's smile. Mary was ashamed for feeling this way. She loved Billy and motherhood, but she also enjoyed working at the newspaper and the pursuits that filled her days since Stephen die.
She simply did not know if she had the strength to juggle a baby with all those things and still be the woman she strived so hard to become.
"You have some time before it starts showing," Alex spoke, trying to be helpful because Mary was more than just a patient. In the short weeks since settling in Four Corners, Mary had become a close friend, and it was clear at this moment, her friend was having a lot of trouble dealing with her situation.
"Oh God." Mary groaned again, her face in her hands.
"Mary, please." Alex prompted her to speak because she clearly needed to. "What scares you so much? It can't be motherhood. My God, you raised a child and ran a paper, not to mention, take a role in the community here that most women couldn't do in a place like this.”
"I didn't have to run the Clarion when Billy was a baby!" Mary exclaimed, the full vent of her anxiety starting to spill over. "I was at home while Steven ran the paper. It's different now! I can't do everything I do, not with a baby!"
"Mary, you wouldn't be doing this alone!" Alex shed her professional demeanour aside because Mary did not need a doctor right now, she needed a friend. "You have friends and a man who loves you even if he could use a bit more housebreaking.”
“Housebreaking?” Mary stared at her. “This is a little bit more than housebreaking. I'm talking about diapers and midnight feedings and potty training and colic and ....." she sputtered. "Can you honestly imagine Chris doing any of those things?"
"Well no," Alex admitted reluctantly, and now that she thought of it, the image of Chris doing anything remotely like that brought an involuntary smile to her face, Mary unfortunately caught. "But he must have done that with his son Adam." She returned quickly, trying to salvage the moment.
"No, no," Mary shook her head vehemently "That's where Sarah came in. She did the raising while he went traipsing off all over the countryside with Buck. Like today! They've gone to Sweetwater."
"I thought you said Bitter Creek."
"You see! It's starting already, and I'm going to end up becoming Bessie the breeding cow while he takes off whenever he pleases!"
"Okay, calm down," the doctor was trying very hard not to laugh because all of Mary's concerns were somewhat exacerbated by the changes her body was undergoing. "You are starting to worry your doctor who can't prescribe laudanum in your condition."
Mary gave her a look before breaking into a laugh in which Alex joined. They giggled for a few minutes, allowing the humour to put things back into perspective. When both women had finally composed themselves, Alex responded with a warm smile. "Feeling better?"
"Yes," Mary sighed, feeling her tension evaporate for the moment. The fears were still there, but they felt somewhat more tolerable now. "Poor Chris. If only he had any idea what the next seven months are going to be like for him. He'll never be seen again.”
"Talk to him Mary," Alex repeated the same advice. "I think he'll surprise you."
"Oh, he'll be surprised, alright. Especially the first time he has to go find me chocolate cake and pickles in the middle of the night." That thought actually gave her some measure of satisfaction.
"Chocolate cake and pickles?" Alex wrinkled her nose in disgust. "Now I think I'm going to be sick."
When Worlds Collide
When Darien Lambert stood at the edge of Four Corners, thanks to Selma’s expert navigation, he knew with absolute certainty Sahmbi's device succeeded in sending him back to the 19th century.
Staring at the town with a child’s wonder, Darien was revisited by memories of the orphanage he’d spent his childhood. Back then, he used to dream of growing up in the Old West, hanging out with Wyatt Earp, Buffalo Bill and Jesse James, as a real-life outlaw with six-shooters and spurs on his boots. Now he was really here in this rugged frontier where so much of the West was still untamed.
"It’s just like in the movies." Darien grinned as he left the outskirts of Four Corners and began moving into the heart of town.
Thankfully, referencing accurate historical data when choosing to outfit himself kept him from standing out. While the urge to look like a Clint Eastwood knockoff was tempting, Darien suspected he was just going to end up looking like a reject from a circus rodeo. As he entered, he was glad to see he was succeeding in blending in. Wearing a tan duster covering a plain cotton shirt and a pair of jeans that would have no trouble fitting in any era, Darien did not appear any different than the locals. Although he missed his sneakers, especially during his walk to town, Darien eventually got used to the cowboy boots.
Darien pulled the stock hat favoured by Australians everywhere over his eyes to keep the glare away. It was almost noon, and the heat of the day prickled his skin. He confessed to feeling like a bit of a tourist as he soaked it all in. Fascinated, he observed the horse-drawn carriages and wagons rumbling past him and noticed with silent glee, the staples of western movies, the jailhouse, the saloon and even the barbershops with their striped poles.
There were a lot of people on the street today, and Darien wondered if it was always this busy. Women wearing long dresses with sweeping skirts, their faces hidden under straw bonnets strolled up and down the wooden boardwalk flanking the dirt road running through the centre of town. It was easy to forget they were still considered second class citizens in this day and age, although the ones who sighted him were surprisingly forward.
At least a dozen women, from saloon girls to appropriately demure young ladies, waved and greeted him as he walked by. One or two had tossed him suggestive ‘come hither' smiles, making Darien wonder whether if that aftershave this morning was such a good idea. One woman had actually come up to him and told how nice he looked with a shave.
Ignoring their behaviour as just one of those things the history books got wrong about women of the frontier, Darien focused on his mission here. If he knew his westerns at all, heading to the local saloon would be the best place to get a lead on Christopher Larabee.
Darien hadn’t paid much attention to the loud footsteps behind him. There were so many people on the boardwalk going about their business, it was impossible to keep track. Spun around roughly, it was only when he heard the booming voice attached to those footsteps, did Darien realised he was the source of its ire.
"You have a lot of nerve Wilmington!"
He found himself staring at the enraged face of a behemoth who could have easily headlined on the WWF circuit. Darien, who was quite tall himself, felt positively tiny next to this giant of a man who possessed the astonishing ability to block out the sun.
"I think you've mistaken me for someone else." Darien tried to be polite, not wanting to cause a scene or get into a fight. Turning around, he attempted to walk away from the situation before it deteriorated any further.
"Very funny Wilmington." The man slapped a massive palm against his shoulder and fastened his grip to indicate Darien wasn’t going anywhere. "I suppose it wasn't you in my Virginia's bed this morning!"
Oh hell. Darien swore under his breath when he guessed quickly how this was going to end up.
"I assure you, I don't even know a Virginia,” Darien said calmly, even though he had the sneaking suspicion the civilised approach was not going to resolve this case of mistaken identities. Judging by the anger on his face, the man was spoiling for a fight and cared little for reasonable explanations.
"You're a yellow-bellied, low down liar!" The man threw his enormous fist at Darien. Fortunately, like all men of his bulk, he was slow, and because Darien was a product of 22nd-century genetic engineering, he was more than equal to the task of fending off the attack. Darien caught the man's fist promptly and used his opponent's forward momentum to flip the behemoth onto his back. He hit the ground and made it tremble slightly because of his weight, sending clouds of dust in the air upon impact.
There was shock on his face but only for a moment. Astonishment gave way to rage and Darien suspected no one might have ever gotten the better of this man before. Jasper Cray got to his feet, enraged and Darien realised there would be no satisfying such a public injury to the man's pride. By now, people stopped what they were doing to observe the fight, much to Darien’s chagrin. Still, this was not going to become a spectator's sport for the people of Four Corners.
"Look, I don't know who you think I am, but I don't want to hurt you," Darien made a last-ditch effort to resolve this misunderstanding peacefully even as he saw the man scrambling to his feet, covered in dirt and becoming even more furious.
"You're going to take your medicine, Wilmington!" He burst out before lowering his head and charging like a bull.
"Ah shit," Darien swore when he saw the man coming at him.
Jumping out of the way with ease, the giant ran straight by Darien only to connect head first with the wooden beam holding up a section of awning they were both standing under. Darien winced hearing the terrible crack of skull meeting wood before his would-be attacker staggered backwards from the collision. He met Darien's eyes for a moment with an expression of stunned shock.
Then he fell flat on his back and moved no more.
"Well, this is good too." Darien shrugged as he walked over to the man and felt for a pulse. He didn’t think the sasquatch hurt himself too badly, but it never hurt to check. Other than the injury to his pride and a severe headache when he regained consciousness, Darien decided the man would be fine.
"Captain, are you alright?"
"I'm fine." He muttered under his breath as he broke through the crowd gathered to witness the fallen man's misfortune and continued towards the saloon. After that little episode, he could use a drink.
"Very well then," Selma whispered. "I shall return to silent mode."
"I wish you would," Darien grumbled, unhappy his attempt to make a discreet entry into Four Corners was all shot to hell. Darien supposed he might have to deal with the man again when he regained consciousness, but hopefully, that would not be for another few hours. Selma remained silent, probably aware when his voice bore this tone, he had little patience for questions.
Reaching the saloon, he stepped through the swing doors, hoping no other trouble found its way to him. Despite the sightseeing he was indulging in earlier, Darien's mission in this time was no tourist trip. The future of humanity depended on what happened in this town.
Darien sidled up to the bar and climbed onto a stool. No one took any notice of him inside the walls of this establishment as most of the patrons were too busy downing their drinks or playing cards. Others were amusing themselves with the attention of saloon girls, and Darien marvelled at how much the place looked exactly like he imagined.
The most beautiful Latina woman he had ever seen appeared behind the counter, and as she approached him with her dusky skin and sultry features, Darien found himself gawking at how heart-achingly gorgeous she was.
"Hello." He greeted with a little smile when she came up to him.
"Hello?" She returned coldly, her eyes narrowing as she met his gaze. "That’s all you have to say?”
"Excuse me?" Darien stared at her blankly.
"I knew you were low," she continued, oblivious to his confusion and clearly very angry with him. Her hands were on her hips, and her eyes were blazing fire in his direction. "I knew you chased everything in a skirt but a married woman with her reputation? Don't you know you were just another notch on her garter belt?"
"I just came in for a drink, Miss," Darien replied, starting to get very tired of this. Just exactly who did these people think he was?
"Oh, it’s Miss now?" She shouted angrily, and Darien looked around and noticed all eyes were staring at him, which was precisely what he had wanted to avoid. If he ever met this Wilmington character, Darien decided he was going to kick his philandering ass from here to the 20th century.
"There's been some mistake..." Darien tried to explain and calm her down.
"Of course there's been some mistake!" She snapped, cutting off any attempt he made to explain things to her. "I made it! I actually considered taking you seriously Senor Wilmington. Now I know better!" With that, she poured a glass of whisky into a small shot glass and threw it in his face.
The room exploded into laughter, and Darien wiped away the dripping alcohol from his face just in time to see a flounce of red skirt moving out of his line of sight with a trailing barb in its wake.
"You even shaved your moustache for her...."*****
"Goddamn, woman! That hurts!" Vin snapped at Alex as she examined the wound forming a substantial lump on the side of his head.
"Then stop moving!” Alex returned just as sharply.
While treating Vin at his Infirmary, Nathan discovered a sizeable bump on Vin's head that concerned him enough to have Ezra summon Alex from her clinic in case it was more severe than it looked. Mindful of just how long Vin was unconscious in the desert, the healer wanted a second opinion.
It had become a habit for the self-taught healer to consult the new doctor whenever a problem arose he was uncertain about. Nathan was painfully insecure about his lack of credentials, although Alex had never questioned his ability and tried to help him when she could. Not long after her arrival, she’d gifted him with a copy of Gray's Anatomy for his library of medical books. It wasn’t until much later, when he saw the stencilled named inside the cover, did Nathan realise she’d given him her father’s copy.
Alex admired Nathan’s desire to be a better healer by asking questions and was happy to help when he asked for it. She found him to be an excellent diagnostician who had an eye for identifying all sorts of ailments. Travelling the world with her father, Alex encountered many physicians who didn’t attend colleges or universities and still saved lives. Nathan was undoubtedly ones of these.
"Look I'm fine," Vin complained, sitting on the bed in Nathan's infirmary.
"He was out for a couple of hours," Nathan explained, aware of any kind of blackout following a severe injury to the head required investigation.
"Well," Alex stepped away from Vin, pleased her examination was over because Vin Tanner was as usual, being as obstinate as a mule. " I think he has a mild concussion although his disposition could be better." She threw Vin a look as she made that last remark. "Overall, I think he'll be fine."
"I didn't mean to bother you Miss Alex. It just kind of worried me."
"It pays to be careful, Nathan." Alex smiled at Nathan to show him it was no bother. "What happened to him, anyway?"
"I’m here you know?” Vin spoke up.
Both Nathan and Alex glanced at him for a moment before they resumed speaking again, ignoring the interruption.
"I'd keep an eye on him for the next day or two. No alcohol or I should say, no more booze. If there is any dizziness or nausea, we need to know the injury is the cause, not the hangover.
"I'll keep him out of the saloon," Nathan nodded in understanding.
"That will be an interesting trick," Ezra spoke for the first time.
Ezra learned it was best to sit back and let Nathan and Alex continue uninterrupted when they were talking about medicine. He particularly enjoyed it when Vin required Alex's considerable medical knowledge because unlike Nathan, who considered them friends first and then patients, Alex knew no such sensibilities. Friends or not, her medical advice was to be followed without exception. Ezra had actually seen her go toe to toe with Chris on this point, and until her arrival, Ezra had believed it was only Mary who could get away with such stubbornness.
"Don't worry," Vin drawled rising to his feet a little unsteadily. "I won't go anywhere near the saloon. I'm going to find the varmint that stole my clothes and my gun."
"Hold it there, Mr Tanner," Ezra interjected before either healer could protest. "You are doing nothing of the sort for a while yet. Let us wait until Mr Larabee returns before we decide on a course of action." Without even hearing it from the gunslinger’s lips, Ezra was sure Chris would not allow Vin to embark on any hunt in his present state.
"He could be anywhere by now!"
"He could be," Ezra agreed. "But as you say he was on foot and had no horse. Wherever he is, it isn't far away, and the man you describe is not easy to fade into the background."
Vin opened his mouth to protest, but he knew Ezra was right. Despite his anger at what happened to him, he was unable to deny that he felt like hell. His head was aching a bit more than he let on and he did feel woozy and nauseous, although he was not about to admit that to anyone, especially Alex.
"Okay, I’ll get some rest, but if he comes to town, I want to know about it." Vin stared at Ezra and Nathan so they’d see how serious he was about this. Vin was usually able to take most things in stride, but part of him still couldn’t come to grips with how easily the stranger had bested him. His pride stung with humiliation.
"Of course. Now why don't you let Mr Jackson and I escort you to your lodgings." The gambler offered politely.
Vin shrugged, unhappy at being out of commission for any length of time but he had to confess to needing the rest. Begrudgingly, he looked up at the friends who were not about to tolerate any argument on the matter and growled, "I can get there myself."
He neither looked at them or Alex, who was packing up her doctor’s bag before he headed out.
Ezra glanced at Nathan, “is it me or is Mr Tanner a lot more disagreeable these days?”*****
JD decided to help Vin in his own way by doing a quick patrol of town to see if Vin’s stranger had slipped into Four Corners without notice.
Taking his cue from Buck, JD made a quick visit to the hotels and the local boarding houses to see if anyone new recently acquired lodgings in town. His search didn’t yield any results, and after an hour, JD returned to the saloon to get some lunch. Even though he considered himself a man, he still had the appetite of a growing boy, and unlike the others who seemed content to substitute their meals for drinks, JD couldn’t get by without his three meals a day.
JD walked into the saloon and surveyed the room for anyone he knew. The table usually occupied by Ezra and the others was empty, and JD guessed they were probably at the jailhouse. He remembered Josiah mentioning something about fixing a stained-glass window at the church and assumed the preacher likely headed there after Nathan and Ezra left.
To his surprise, JD caught sight of Buck sitting at the counter, except…he looked strange . For a moment, JD almost didn’t recognise the older man. For starters, Buck was missing his moustache. The same moustache Buck once said he’d get rid of over his dead body. He looked so different, JD thought, almost younger which was ridiculous, since he’d seen Buck the night before and such a change overnight was impossible.
"Buck!" JD called out as he strode over to the tall man at the counter.
Buck didn’t seem to hear him, heightening JD’s puzzlement even further. For a moment, he considered the possibility Buck was in disguise to avoid Jasper Cray but discounted it because Buck Wilmington wasn’t afraid of anyone, no matter how big or mad they were.
"Hey, Buck!" JD repeated himself, slapping him on the back as JD took the seat next to him.
JD noticed Buck's eyes rolling with a mixture of indifference and pure annoyance before turning to him.
"Listen, kid, I don't know who you think I am and I don't really care, but I am not him , got that?"
JD stared in confusion. "Buck, this ain't funny."
Buck started rubbing his forehead as if he was developing a headache before meeting JD's gaze again. "Exactly who do you think I am?"
This had to be a joke. JD knew Buck had a strange sense of humour and was willing to play along for a while. "You're Buck Wilmington of course unless you've changed your identity, so Jasper don't come after you."
Darien groaned visibly. "My name is Darien Lambert. I'm in town for a few days on some private business. I don't know who Buck Wilmington is, and if Jasper is a seven-foot ape who thinks I've been sleeping with his wife, we've already met."
"He must have pounded you good," JD exclaimed looking Buck over for any signs of injury to explain this erratic behaviour. "Are you hurt? Do you need to see Nathan or Doctor Styles?"
Darien poured himself another drink from the bottle the angry beauty left behind. "I'm fine kid."
This young man reminded him of one of the rookies on the force who was too green to walk away from a bad situation until it blew up in their faces. Despite his persistence, Darien couldn’t help liking the boy, and he was a boy, even if he was packing six-shooters on both sides. This was hardly surprising of course. In this day and age, the guns were not the purview of NRA fanatics; it was the cornerstone on which the old West was built.
Darien was about to tell him to go away when suddenly he noticed the silver glint of a sheriff's badge on the breast of JD's waistcoat. "You're the sheriff?"
"Very funny Buck," JD gave him a sour look. "I suppose you don't know that you're the one who told me I was a fool for taking on the job?"
Well, that much Darien agreed with the unseen Mr Wilmington. "You're just a kid!"
JD bristled, and Darien winced, seeing the hurt on the kid’s face. The badge was polished and well cared for, a clear indication the person wearing it was inordinately proud of the title and the authority behind it.
"Listen, Buck. I'm getting mighty tired of this game you're playing."
In truth, JD was feeling unusually persecuted and was actually angry enough to leave Buck to his charade. He rose from his chair when the older man responded.
"Sit down kid." Darien sighed, deciding it was not this young man’s fault if he didn’t understand what was going on. "I didn't mean to insult you. I'm sorry, Sheriff... what's your name?"
"JD Dunne! That's it! I'm taking you to see Nathan." JD put his hand around Buck's arm. "You're out of your head!"
"Sit," Darien said coolly, with a tone in his voice that made the young man freeze.
JD obeyed, staring at Buck who for a moment, sounded just like Chris. What was going on?
Darien turned around on his stool, so he was meeting the young man face to face. "Just assume for a moment I’m not your friend. I know I look like this Wilmington person, but I’m not him. Just empty your mind of that whole concept and start thinking of me as Darien Lambert. I am looking for a Christopher Larabee. Do you know where I can find him?"
If this young man was indeed the sheriff of Four Corners, there might be a chance he might know where to find this ancestor of Kyle Reese. Considering his luck already, Darien didn’t think he would have much to lose if the boy knew nothing. In any instance, he would be no further along in his search than he was now.
"Christopher Larabee? Come on, Buck, you know where Chris is better than I do! You went with him to Bitter Creek this morning."
Oh, this day was just getting better , Darien thought. If this boy was correct, then at this very moment, a man who looked exactly like him was out riding with the very person Darien was chasing across time. Darien rubbed the bridge of his nose as he concluded some cosmic entity was having a great deal of amusement at his expense today.
"Are you telling me Wilmington and Larabee are friends?" Darien asked wearily as he poured himself another glass of this rotgut that passed for whisky.
JD was about to respond to that absurd statement when he took another look at Buck, a real look. It was so easy to miss the obvious when one was convinced of a thing, but once he did, things began to stand out. At first, JD attributed it to the lack of moustache and the clothes, but the more he scrutinised the man, the more he noticed the differences.
What had he said? Empty your mind?
JD did just that and was rewarded with revelation. Moustache and clothes notwithstanding, this man was at least ten to twenty pounds lighter than Buck. While the lack of a moustache was jarring, JD realised this man looked younger and... JD struggled for the word and found the only one that came to mind, healthier. Finally, there was the way he spoke. Not at all like Buck’s familiar Texan drawl. Instead, he sounded like an Easterner, and no one should know this better than JD himself.
No this was crazy, it was Buck, JD’s mind turned back to default, still refusing to grasp the undeniable. Then it came to him, a flash of inspiration he knew would wipe away all remaining doubt.
“Open your shirt,” JD burst out.
Darien stared at the kid, wondering if the only sane person he’d met so far had suddenly reverted to type. “Excuse me?”
“If you’re not Buck, open your shirt,” JD insisted, his jaw set and his eyes narrowed in challenge.
The seriousness in the kid’s eyes told Darien the request was not made lightly and he guessed very quickly why the young sheriff asked. It was smart, really smart and If it would expedite things further, Darien was happy to accommodate him.
“Okay,” Darien nodded. He started undoing the buttons of his shirt, from the one above his belt, all the way to the top. Parting the fabric just wide enough to let the boy see, he noted JD was leaning in for a closer look.
JD studied the man’s torso, taking note of a few scars that might have been left behind by bullet wounds and one that looked like a knife. However, the long scars across the chest, delivered by the sabre of a Confederate Colonel named Emmett Anderson, was absent .With a start, JD lifted his eyes to the man, who was not Buck and stared.
“You’re not Buck.”
“What gave it away?” Darien asked, turning back to the counter again now the boy had his proof.
“You look just like Buck,” JD found his voice. “I mean, really like him. You could be twins, except for the moustache.”
“Uh no,” Darien made a face. “Tried a moustache when I was younger, only Sam Elliot and Tom Selleck can pull that off.”
“Never mind,” Darien dismissed the comment at the kid’s blank stare.
“What did you say your name was?”
"Darien Lambert," Darien answered grateful to see the end of this complication.
"Please to meet you, Mr Lambert,” JD extended his hand and Darien shook it, the gesture reaffirming his previous reaction of liking the boy.
Now that they were on better footing, Darien could get back on mission. "Look Sherriff, it’s vital I find Larabee immediately. You said he's gone to Bitter Creek? When he will be back?"
"Tonight," JD answered, seeing the anxiousness in the eyes of this stranger who wore Buck's face. JD could sense the hard edge of concern in his eyes that he often saw in Chris's own. Something was wrong.
"What's happening? Is Chris in trouble?"
Judging by the way JD spoke about Larabee, Darien concluded JD knew the gunslinger personally and if this was the case, could afford to level with the kid, to a degree. Besides, he had no idea how to explain killer cyborg to someone from the Steam Age.
"Someone is coming to kill him, and I’m here to stop them so I need to know where he would go first when he comes back to town."
"Well, that's easy," JD replied, without even having to consider the question. "He'd go see Mrs Travis."
By sunset, The Terminator was in Four Corners.
Although there was little reason to fear discovery, its program calculated optimum success would be achieved if the entry was made under cover of darkness. As an infiltration unit, the Terminator calculated with a community as small as this, with tight-knit social groups, the presence of a stranger could potentially warn the target before it was able to acquire him.
Factual data on the target was limited, derived from birth and death records, and the periodicals of the time. When the Terminator was being prepared as a receptacle for Skynet, the read-only function in its neural net CPU was disabled. To date, it was the only model of the Terminator series to have this function made inoperative. As a rule, Terminators were not required to be a learning computer.
The clothes and weapons the Terminator liberated from the humans it encountered en route to the town proved to be a success as it infiltrated the community without drawing suspicion. Utilising the information in its memory banks, the Terminator headed towards the Standish saloon, as the periodicals indicated the establishment to be a favourite of the target. As it made its way up the steps towards the batwing doors, the Terminator conducted an infrared scan and detected at least thirty-five people in the building.
Stepping through the batwing doors of the saloon, the Terminator scanned the floor. Most of the humans present were heavily affected by alcohol. The bottles of liquor on the wall behind the counter, and across the table seemed to prove this point. Studying the faces present, the Terminator conducted a facial recognition scan and determined quickly the target was not present.
It would wait.
It found a table in the corner of the room presently occupied by a human slouched across the surface in an alcohol-induced stupor. The human made no move to stop its intrusion, giving the Terminator confidence no resistance would be provided. It sat down and quietly observed the proceedings in the rowdy establishment.
While it would not take long to search the town, the Terminator concluded such action could inadvertently alert the target and allow him to escape. For now, the cyborg opted to switch to surveillance mode. If the target did not appear, the Terminator would turn to the secondary objectives. The primary was associated with six men who could be used to draw him out.
The Terminator watched the proceedings with mild fascination. Once the read-only function was disabled, it was capable of absorbing enormous volumes of data. The Skynet programming inhabiting its neural net thirsted for such information with almost human-like curiosity. The Terminator's understanding of human behaviour was the one aspect of its programming that required regular updates. Skynet was aware there was no such thing as a rational human equation. In any given situation, ten Terminators could be expected to behave in the exact same way because that was calculable. How ten humans would behave was not.
The war in which John Connor defeated Skynet's machine army was case in point of how this odd behavioural trait had become the defining weapon in the human arsenal. Despite Skynet’s attempt to evolve the Terminators to anticipate a human response, humans adapted even faster.
At this moment, however, the quality allowing them to defeat Skynet was sadly absent. The Terminator studied the present selection of humans and found them far removed from those encountered in the future. This motley collection represented the worst of humanity as they indulged in every vice, from avarice, sloth to lust.
If the target was anything like this, then the Terminator did not expect to encounter many difficulties when the time came to carry out its mission objective.*****
"If this is a joke between you and Mr Wilmington, I will not be impressed." Mary eyed JD as she served him and Darien coffee.
It took JD’s convincing argument about the disappearance of the scars Buck Wilmington sustained during the seven’s first adventure in the Seminole village, before Mary conceded the man before her wasn’t the lovable rogue they knew. Like JD, Mary also noticed the differences between the two men. Aside from the obvious, this one was leaner, with more emphasis on muscle than bulk. His skin was nowhere as brown or creased, and the hands lacked the callousness of a seasoned gunfighter.
"I swear to you, Mrs Travis," Darien sighed, wondering if it was even remotely possible for him to have foreseen this complication when he decided to make his trip through time. “I’m not this Buck Wilmington everyone has mistaken me for. Trust me, it’s not fun being mistaken for this guy. Since I got here, I've had to put up with an angry husband and a bartender who threw a drink in my face."
Neither Mary nor JD could help but laugh at that.
"Well, Inez and Buck have a complicated relationship," JD tried to explain.
"I thought he was doing the wild thing with Gorilla Grodd’s wife,” Darien muttered and then recalled how the women on the street had reacted to him. "Just how many women does he have?"
"Gorilla who?” JD exclaimed.
"Never mind." Darien shrugged and reminded himself, the use of 20th-century lingo on these people would probably serve to confuse them more than his likeness to Buck Wilmington. "I take it, Mr Wilmington is popular with women?"
"Extremely," Mary nodded.
“Great.” Darien sighed in exasperation.
"Well, your resemblance is uncanny." Mary pointed out, "like your story is fantastic."
Darien had told them nothing about the future, and as a result, his credibility was less than stellar. He suspected the only reason either of them gave him the time of day was his resemblance to this friend of theirs.
"I can't help that," Darien said honestly. "I can only tell you I know someone is coming after Chris Larabee and they will kill anyone he knows to reach him."
"But why?" Mary looked at him in concern. With the confirmation of her pregnancy, she was glad her relationship with Chris was still a secret. The last thing Chris needed was to see her and the baby as a liability.
"I can't say."
According to the timeline in which Darien was born, Christopher Larabee married twice. While only a death certificate existed for the first, the information regarding the second Mrs Larabee was quite extensive. The descendants who would produce Kyle Reese and eventually John Connor would begin from this woman as well as Larabee. If the Terminator had access to this information, it might label Mary Travis as a secondary target.
"You're going to have to do better than that Mr Lambert. It may be a sheer coincidence you look exactly like Buck Wilmington, but we have no idea who you are, or where you come from. I do not wish to sound ungrateful, but you've given us nothing to prove your word."
Darien found himself flinching under her high-powered stare because he guessed this was a highly intelligent woman who missed very little. Her beauty and youth disarmed people into thinking she was just another product of her time, but they would learn otherwise very quickly. Darien knew he was not going to fool her with any fabrication, and he considered the ramifications of telling her the truth.
Suddenly, a shrill sound tore through the air. Both Mary and JD were startled by it. Mary dropped her teacup, spilling hot liquid across the floral table cloth while JD jumped to his feet weapons drawn, trying to discern where the alien sound originated. Mary backed away from the table as hot tea flowed in her direction when she noticed the sound was coming from Darien, who was the only one not reacting.
Darien’s expression was one of annoyance and Mary was sure he swore under his breath.
"Selma stop that!" Darien ordered, wondering if this was Selma's way of helping him convince Mary Travis about the danger to Chris Larabee’s life. "They don't have beepers in this day and age!"
"I am sorry Captain," Selma responded, completely unrepentant at the situation she’d caused. "I felt this was an emergency."
"This better be good Selma." He warned, openly upset at this sudden breach in his orders. Trying to come up with an explanation for this was going to be almost impossible. As it was, both JD and Mary were looking around the room, trying to determine the source of that disembodied voice.
"I apologise Captain. However, you asked me to scan for unusual energy signatures at one-hour intervals."
"Yes, yes," he nodded, ever mindful of the two people now turning their attention back to him, their eyes demanding an explanation. "And?"
"I've detected the resonance of a high focus atomic power cell approximately 25 meters from this location, in the vicinity of the saloon."
Darien froze. “He’s here.”
If the Terminator was in Four Corners, there was little time to waste, and because Mary Travis was just as viable a target as Chris Larabee, she was in danger.
"WHAT IS GOING ON?” Mary demanded her patience exhausted. “Who is speaking?”
"I don't have time to explain this to you." Darien stood up and turned to JD. “It’s here, and I need to get to it before it reaches you or Larabee.”
"You will make time to explain!" Mary insisted, grasping something terrible was happening, something with far graver implications than this stranger was letting on.
"There’s no time Mrs Travis! I have to get out there and stop this thing if it can be stopped.” Turning to JD, Darien placed his hand on the young sheriff’s shoulders. "Listen, Sheriff, I know it’s asking a lot, but I need you to trust me. I need you to get Mrs Travis somewhere safe. If I can’t stop it, it may come after her if it can’t find Larabee. You need to get her out of town, as far away as you can.”
The intensity of the man’s eyes was hard to ignore, and in that one moment, whatever the truth might be, JD understood the threat was real . “What do you mean? Who is this guy?"
"No one you ever want to meet in this lifetime, Sheriff Dunne. Now get going before it’s too late!”
Darien made that parting shot before running out the front door, leaving Mary and JD behind in stunned disbelief.*****
He should really see Mary first, but he needed a drink.
The ride to and from Bitter Creek was long enough without the tedium of listening to both Buck and Ben Davies claiming innocence for two completely unrelated crimes. While Ben pleaded innocent to cattle rustling, Buck claimed to be the only person other than Jeff the idiot who cleaned the public outhouse, who did not know Virginia Cray was married.
By the time they reached Bitter Creek, Chris had half a mind to shoot both. Initially, he was supposed to have Josiah's company on this trip, but after Jasper discovered Buck with Mrs Cray, Chris decided a change of roster would be a good idea. It would give Jasper time to cool off and abandon the idea of dismembering Buck from limb to limb.
It was safe to say after the day he just had, Chris felt he more than earned his dollar a day as an unofficial lawman to Four Corners, not to mention the drink Chris was going to get when he reached the saloon.
"You think Jasper is still mad?" Buck asked as they walked up to the steps of the tavern. The evening festivities were in full swing, and they could hear the music and lively chatter from inside the crowded establishment.
"If I found another man in my wife's bed, it might take me more than a day to calm down."
"Chris, you'd just shoot 'em."
"Yeah, I would," Chris grinned at him. "But I didn't want you to get your hopes up."
Buck narrowed his eyes and gave Chris a dirty look. "Thanks.”
"Buck, how many windows are you going to jump out of before you learn that taking up residence in someone else's hen house is a bad idea?"
Chris knew Buck for years, and the man never changed. Buck was incapable of saying no to a pretty face, whether it was available to him or not. If Chris didn't know better, he would swear the more unattainable the woman, the more determined Buck became. The challenge of forbidden fruit was just too much for his old friend to resist.
"I can't help it. It's like a candy store. I gotta taste every one."
Chris rolled his eyes and shook his head in resignation. "Just be careful someone doesn't take it in their mind to rip out your tongue."
"It would be a loss to ladies everywhere."
Chris laughed despite himself and chose to abandon any attempt to sermonise when it was quite clear Buck was never going to change. Chris also did not believe for one second Buck would have given up his dalliance with Virginia Cray either way. If anything, it would be an added attraction almost as addictive to Buck as the sex itself. Deciding a change of subject was in order, Chris left the issue of the Crays gratefully behind.
"Can't stay long, I want to check in on Mary."
"How's she doing?" Buck inquired, aware Mary was feeling poorly of late. During the few times he saw her, she looked haggard and quite exhausted.
"Better than she was last week," Chris said without much pleasure in that admission.
"Well Billy's a bright kid, but like all children, he is a handful," Buck commented as they entered the saloon and spotted Ezra, Josiah and Nathan at their usual table. "Mary's a working woman with a business and a son. It's got to take its toll on her sometimes. Maybe she’ll feel a little better now that Billy’s gone back to Eagle Bend.”
"I guess." Chris shrugged, having said his farewells to the boy the day before. “She’s always been able to manage it before. Seems kind of strange it's only affecting her now." Chris hid just how concerned he was about Mary's state of health.
The atmosphere in the saloon was quite lively this evening, with everyone from drifters, cattle drivers and saloon girls present. Someone was playing the piano in the corner, and a few cowpokes had taken up post to sing some off-key bawdy songs. The drinking session was in early stages yet so for the moment at least, everyone was behaving themselves.
"True," Buck nodded in agreement, speaking over the dull rumble of voices. "But these days, she's got her hands full what with looking after the paper, raising Billy and now keeping you happy at night."
"Watch it," Chris grumbled, disliking any talk about Mary in that manner, especially in such a public place. His relationship with Mary was private, and he didn’t like anyone talking about her that way.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry." Buck apologised, laughing, aware when he had crossed the line from bad taste to insult. However, he could not resist teasing Chris. The man got riled up so easily when it came to Mary Travis.
"You know I think highly of Mrs Travis." He said, offering Chris a respectful bow.
"Yeah." Chris frowned sarcastically knowing exactly what Buck was up to by the time they reached Josiah and the others at their usual table. Pulling a vacant chair from another table, Chris sat down and relished being off his feet for the first time in hours.
Following the chorus of greeting at their arrival, Chris soon realised the circumstances of their return were less than ideal. Judging by the look on everyone's faces, Chris guessed quickly something had taken place since their departure from Four Corners this morning. Letting Buck continued onward to the bar to get them some drinks since it appeared Inez had her hands full with nearly a full house, Chris wanted to know what was going on.
"Vin's hurt," Josiah replied explaining the situation to Chris, who had impatience with any form of small talk until he was apprised of everything. "Someone attacked him out there on the trail. Took his clothes and gun.”
"How did they get the drop on him?" Chris said with some disbelief. If it were anyone else, Chris would have no trouble envisioning it but out in the plains, it was tough for anyone to sneak up on Vin without his knowing it.
"How bad is he hurt?" Chris directed this question at Nathan, who would have undoubtedly treated him since Chris knew Vin’s attitude towards Doctor Styles.
"He's got a concussion and some nasty bruises," Nathan reported dutifully. "He also lost a back tooth."
"Jesus," Chris swore. "Where is he?"
"Alex ordered him to get some rest," Ezra answered. "She did not feel it appropriate that he indulged in any hard living in his present condition."
Vin would have loved that , Chris thought silently to himself. "Any idea who it was?"
"Not a one." Josiah's deep voice responded while the preacher shook his head in distaste. "The man came out of nowhere it seems, stark naked and took Vin down really fast. You should have seen the bruising on him, Chris. It looked like someone took after him with a shovel."
Chris winced at the description and felt a rising knot of anger in the pit of his stomach at someone doing that to any of his friends, let alone Vin Tanner. He resolved himself to visit Vin before he headed home to Mary. Knowing Vin’s temper, the tracker was liable to take off and go hunt down the bastard himself. In the condition he was supposedly in, that was the quickest way to get himself killed.
"Well, that was strange," Buck announced his return with an expression of puzzlement. He kept glancing over his shoulder as if a further look would resolve his confusion.
"What?" Nathan inquired.
"Inez just asked me how I grew my moustache so fast." Buck frowned, bewildered by the strange exchange he just experienced with the lovely bartender. Just when he thought their relationship was starting to improve, she went and said something proving otherwise. Then again, she might have heard about Virginia Cray which sent a pang of guilt through him.
“I think the busy day is getting to Inez,” Ezra remarked, unable to offer any explanation for that.
Chris took the glass from Buck, deciding against trying to figure out this latest calamity in his old friend’s life. Buck always seemed to be forever leaping from one situation to another, and it almost always involved a lady.
Chris raised his glass to his lips when his eyes caught sight of a man coming through the crowd in their direction. Big son of a bitch , he thought, noting the ill-fitting clothes especially against the massive chest and arms. There was no expression on his face, just this blank stare aimed in Chris’s direction. It made the gunslinger’s spine straighten in inexplicable alarm.
The stranger's dark eyes pierced through the bodies gathered in front of the seven’s table and fixated on Chris. There was a flash of recognition in his eyes before that blank mask fell over his features as he brought his hands up into view and Chris saw the shiny barrel of a shotgun.
The double-barrelled shotgun went off almost immediately after his warning.
Chris and the others got clear, tipping over the table in the process, sending glass flying in all directions. The discharge from the weapon tore a hole through the wood and kept going. Someone standing behind them bore the brunt of the blast, catching the shot squarely in the chest. Blood erupted from his ruined sternum as the poor unfortunate uttered a short scream before falling to the floor. The shooter wasted no time taking another shot. Around him, saloon girls screamed as patrons ran for cover. Nathan was shouting for everyone to get out, but his cries were barely heard as the saloon descended into complete pandemonium.
Chris, who was the first to see their attacker, had already drawn both his guns. Without thinking twice, he fired one shot before the man could pull the trigger on the shotgun again. The bullet caught him in the dead centre of his forehead and then did the most amazing thing; it deflected outward. Blood began flowing through the small entry wound, covering his face in red and staining his shirt. Chris holstered his weapon, not expecting the shooter to be on his feet for much longer when suddenly the man blinked.
And remained standing.
Chris stared in shock as he touched the blood on his face and studied the crimson on his fingertips as if he were examining a cut. Ezra, Josiah, Nathan and Buck were similarly gaping, exchanging perplexed looks with each other at how the man could still be alive after a headshot.
Then showing no indication of being affected by the injury, the stranger raised his gun again, turning his attention back to Chris.
Snapping out of it, Chris had barely time to leap out of the way from the incoming projectile. He felt splinters flying into his back as the wooden table was blown to pieces behind him. Glasses smashed against the floor. Those in the path of the shotgun pellets were sprayed with a mist of fine shards spreading out in all directions. Chris landed a few feet away, his weight buckling the chair on which he fell.
He rolled onto his feet in time to see Buck and the others recovered enough to draw their guns and let loose a murderous hail of bullets in the stranger's direction. Chris stayed down low as bullets flew over his head. In the background, he could hear more breakage due to the onslaught of gunfire.
Chris knew he hadn’t missed. He fired a headshot for no other reason than to put the stranger down for good. Anyone who opened fire in a crowded saloon was not someone Chris was going to reason with. He saw the bullet penetrate the skin! Even now, while the others were firing away at the man relentlessly, Chris could see the entry wound weeping fresh blood.
Despite the impossibility of what they were seeing, this stranger who should already be dead from the first bullet was still standing. He reacted to the barrage of bullets with little more than a slight jerk of muscles like he was being assaulted with flies instead of bullets. He seemed almost oblivious to the gunfire. Fresh wounds appeared on his skin as almost every bullet fired found its mark on his body.
"Goddamn!" Chris heard Buck exclaimed and his response mirrored what everyone in the room was thinking. "Why the hell ain't he dying?"
"Keep firing!" Ezra's voice shouted frantically. Even from here, Chris could hear the fear in the gambler's voice. Chris could hardly blame him. How the fuck was that big bastard still standing?
Whatever the stranger was, it was clear he was only interested in one thing. Chris. Turning away from the others, he advanced in on Chris again, shrugging everyone else’s gunfire as he reloaded the shotgun, oblivious to the fact he was being turned inside out by a hail of bullets.
"I'm out!" Chris heard Josiah cry and knew the others would be nearing the same point. They had been firing continuously for the last few minutes as they tried to put down this monster who was seemingly incapable of dying. Chris had no idea how to defend himself. Shooting was pointless if what he had seen so far was any indication of how bullets affected the stranger. The double-barrel was aimed at him again, and Chris scrambled to his feet, trying to decide what to do.
“Chris, watch out!” He heard Buck shout as his old friend rushed at the thing.
"No, Buck!" Chris shouted because Buck was wide open to get himself killed. The stranger had no intention of wasting a bullet, flipping the weapon over instead to strike Buck with the thick, wooden stock. The force of it sent Buck sprawling. Unconcerned with whether Buck got up, the man continued towards Chris. Josiah hurled a chair, but he swatted it away with ease, almost completely dismantling it with his enormous swing.
Chris Larabee did not know how to run from a fight. In all his life, Chris never faced a situation where he had to tuck tail and run for his very survival. The idea was not only repulsive, but it went against everything he was, especially when his friends were fighting life and limb to defend him. Chris was breathing hard. Fear gripped him so fiercely. he almost didn’t recognise the sensation.
But if the thing wanted him, he could lead them away from the others. Yeah, he could do that. Seeing Nathan scrambling towards an unconscious Buck, Chris knew if he didn’t run, this thing would kill all his friends just to reach him.
"Mr Larabee, get the hell out of here!" He heard Ezra shout as the gambler fumbled for fresh ammunition to reload his gun.
While it was preparing to fire, Josiah took advantage of the enemy's concentration and leapt onto the man's back, sliding an arm around his neck in a deadly arm lock. As it tried to shake Josiah off, Chris saw the preacher tossed around like a man riding a bull. Using the distraction, Josiah provided, Chris ran forward to help, wrestling the shotgun away from the stranger’s incredibly powerful grip. With a roar of exertion, Chris yanked the weapon free, sending it clattering noisily away. Chris grabbed a chair and swung.
The stranger caught it with one hand and practically ripped it from Chris' grip with one forceful yank while at the same time throwing Josiah violently off his body. The preacher went flying and smashed into a table, collapsing everything beneath him under his weight.
With lightning reflexes, Chris did not give the monster time to react, and he threw a fist into the enemy's bloody face. The thing looked up at him and responded with little more than a slight twitch, shaking off the blow. Chris pummelled him repeatedly in desperation. Even as his fists struck the stranger’s jaw, Chris felt his knuckles flare in pain. Hitting him was like hitting an iron wall and to Chris's dismay, the gunslinger realised with a tinge of panic, he could not keep this up indefinitely.
"Christopher Larabee." The stranger surprised them by speaking for the first time. Like the rest of him, his words were strange. “You have been scheduled for termination."
"Get down!" Ezra shouted, having reloaded his guns.
Chris dropped to his feet as the gambler began firing every bullet from his twin guns at this seemingly unstoppable stranger. The shots rippled across his broad back and then across the chest. For the first time, the man took notice of something other than Chris. Despite the danger, Ezra ignored the threat to himself and kept firing, determined to put this creature down even as skin hung off his massive frame like a carcass being shredded by buzzards.
Chris reacted quickly; knowing he had little time before Ezra ran out of bullets or before the thing reached him, whichever came first. Chris searched the floor frantically for the shotgun that went flying only minutes ago, locating it under another table. Chris almost dived for it in his haste to reach the weapon. Skidding to the floor, he retrieved the gun and glanced over his shoulder to see the man virtually on top of Ezra, now almost out of shells and would have no time to reload.
Chris got to his feet, checking the barrel of the shotgun to see one shell still in the chamber. Secretly, he prayed it was enough to stop this thing because he had no idea what they were going to do next if it didn’t.
Ezra had little room to escape when the bloody creature reached him and grabbed him by the throat. Ezra felt the floor disappear from under his feet as he was lifted into the air with ease. Thick fingers enclosed his throat with such strength Ezra could barely budge the digits crushing his windpipe. In seconds, Ezra was fighting to breathe. Through the haze of pain, he saw Nathan, after pulling an injured Buck out of the line of fire, was now hurrying towards him to aid him in his precarious situation.
"I assure you we can talk this out." Ezra tried to gasp as he felt his spinal cord pressing up against his windpipe with such intense pressure he was starting to lose consciousness.
"Let him go!" Nathan shouted as he reached for the hand around Ezra's neck. The stranger lashed out with his other arm and swatted the healer away like he was an annoying insect. Ezra saw Nathan being thrown backwards and marvelled at the strength of the thing strangling him in his relentless grip. Everything was starting to go black when he was pulled back to clarity with the sound of Chris Larabee's voice speaking very calmly.
"Let him go, or I'm going to blow your fucking head off."
The shotgun was poised to fire, and Ezra followed the voice to see the barrel of a gun pressed firmly on the back of the stranger's head. The icy cold delivery of the threat told Ezra, Chris would have little difficulty pulling the trigger. Chris Larabee was known to protect his friends from danger with the savagery of a rabid wolf.
The creature responded by slamming Ezra headfirst into a nearby column. The sound of bone-crunching was so loud and sickening, Chris was stunned by the speed and ferocity of it.
“Son of a bitch!” Chris cursed and pulled the trigger. The resounding blast forced the stranger to release the gambler and Ezra tumbled to the ground, unconscious. Chris felt his heart pounding and prayed the Southerner was still alive.
Incredibly, the enemy did not fall. The blast staggered him enough to release his grip on Ezra but not enough to end him. Chris had fired at point-blank range and should have decapitated the son of a bitch, but he was still standing. How the fuck was he still standing? When the smoke from the shotgun blast cleared, the creature, it wasn’t a man, turned to Chris.
What Chris saw then was beyond even his ability to comprehend with any measure of calm. Under the exposed flesh of an eye socket, a bright red eye radiating with light stared at him. Like a lamp, Chris thought, unable to form any other comparison. It lit up the rest of its face, and Chris's eyes widened in horror at the gleam of metal beneath the ruined skin on the man’s face.
"You have been scheduled for termination." The voice repeated and took another step forward, utterly unfazed by the shotgun blast Chris was sure should have finished him.
"Step away, Larabee." A new voice entered the fray. "Step away now ."
Chris turned in time to see a shape running forward through the chaos of upturned tables and unconscious bodies with incredible speed. His own reflexes were fast, but the speed in which this new arrival crossed the floor of the saloon surprised even Chris. The monster before Chris had little time to react as a very human-looking man stopped behind it and produced an odd-looking device from his tan duster.
To Chris, it looked like nothing remotely resembling a weapon. It was squarish and black, with two sharp points protruding outwards. Chris could only guess its purpose, but at this moment, he hoped it would be enough.
Prodding the two points against the monster's side, Chris saw the man squeeze what looked like a trigger(?) before jumping back to a safe distance. A split second later, tendrils of blue energy erupted across its body. Recognising electrification from the few times he’d encountered such lights in some of the larger towns, Chris's would-be killer spasmed like a puppet on a string. All the while wearing that goddamn blank mask on its face, as if it felt nothing .
When the thing, Chris had no idea what else to call it, finally collapsed onto the floor with a loud thud, Chris was finally able to breathe again. Around them, the saloon was near demolished by the firefight. The gunfire left little standing with fragments of glass everywhere and every wall riddled with bullets. The room looked like the aftermath of a battlefield. He saw Nathan struggling to rise to his feet as the healer crawled slowly towards Ezra whose face was covered with blood.
In the corner, Buck began to come around while Josiah remained above the table he had landed on. The monster, and Chris could think of no other word that seemed appropriate to describe it, was where it had fallen, unmoving.
Chris looked up at the man who saved his life, saved all of them. When Chris stared into his face, what he saw should not have surprised him, considering everything that transpired in the last ten minutes. Even though he wore his friend's face and looked identical to Buck Wilmington, Chris knew this was not, since he could see the real Buck in the corner of the room, struggling to regain some balance after their ordeal.
Suddenly Inez’s odd statement to Buck earlier, made perfect sense.
"You're not Buck," Chris stated if only because he needed to hear himself say it.
"No," Darien shook his head. "My name is Darien Lambert, and we don't have much time. Come with me if you want to live ."
Nathan Jackson felt aches and pains in places he'd forgotten he had, but was grateful he was not seriously harmed. Crawling through the debris of shattered glass and broken furniture, he gave little consideration to anything around him except for the moment, the crisis was over. The thing dispatching them like children lay on the floor not far from him. The healer felt a shudder of fear as he moved gingerly past the unmoving form, conscious of the fact they had no idea if it was dead or alive at this point. Instead, Nathan headed towards Ezra whose grievous condition compelled the healer to move faster.
Ezra suffered the worst of the enemy's attack, and Nathan couldn't help but admire the gambler for standing his ground and protecting Chris no matter what. Considering the relationship between gunslinger and gambler was strained from the very beginning, it made his sacrifice all the nobler. Reaching Ezra, Nathan's stomach clenched at the sight of the blood. The front of Ezra's skull was a mass of bloodied hair and crushed bone.
"Ezra!" Nathan lowered his head and listened to his breathing. "Ezra, can you hear me?"
There was no response.
The healer felt for a pulse and knew Ezra was still alive, but not for long. Nathan had been a healer long enough to know what a brain injury looked like and for once, had no idea if it was within his power to fix damage like this. He'd seen surgeons treat such trauma, but this was beyond him. He hoped to God Miss Alex knew what to do because at this point, he didn't.
"I need help here!"
At that moment, Vin Tanner made his appearance through the saloon door. The tracker like the rest of Four Corners, heard the commotion. While the townsfolk had sense enough to remain indoors, Vin knew his friends would be in the thick of it. He burst through the batwing doors and stopped short, his unflappable mask lowering to reveal nothing less than stunned shock at the sight that greeted him. The destruction was almost total, with only Buck and Chris left standing. He was about to head towards them when he heard Nathan's near frantic cry.
"What the hell happened here?" Vin demanded when he reached Nathan, who was continuing to examine Ezra's wound.
"I'll tell you on the way!" Nathan exclaimed as he gestured at Vin to help him with Ezra. "If we don't get him to Miss Alex, he's going to die!"
Vin did not doubt it if Ezra's state was anything to go by. There was blood everywhere, and Ezra's forehead was almost a mess of pulp.
"Can you help him?" Vin asked as they heaved Ezra to his feet.
"This needs surgery I ain't never done before!" Nathan sounded almost panicked as they started forward when suddenly Chris Larabee made himself heard.
"Nathan," Chris strode towards them, and for the first time, Vin and Nathan became aware of the man standing beside the gunslinger. At first, they thought it was Buck, until they saw Buck was actually on the other end of the room, pulling debris off Josiah to rouse the preacher.
"What the hell…" Vin started to say, but Chris cut him off before he could speak or comment on Darien's presence. After what the man had told him, Chris understood the need for speed.
"Never mind that now," Chris spoke, his eyes taking in the gambler's condition. Chris remembered how Ezra tried to protect him, and the idea it might cost Ezra his life made Chris red with fury. "Nathan put Ezra in a wagon and get Alex too, we're leaving."
"Leaving ?" Vin stared at Chris in near stupefied shock. Chris never ran from anything.
Vin saw Chris's eyes harden, as if he disliked this fact more than anyone else, but kept his distaste hidden and repeated himself. "I'm telling you after what we saw, we need to get the hell out of here before he wakes up. I'll explain better when we're on the way."
“He?” Vin looked at him blankly and then noticed the man on the floor. Vin's eyes widened, recognising the stranger as his attacker from the night before. “He did all this?”
“Yeah,” Chris nodded. “Vin, we got no time to lose. Get Nathan and Alex on a wagon, because we are leaving.”
"On the way where?" Nathan demanded, wondering if Chris understood just how severe Ezra's condition was. "I don't think this is such a good idea. Ezra needs surgery immediately."
"JUST DO IT!" Chris barked with such venom in his voice Nathan was startled by the intensity of that demand.
The stranger wearing Buck's face stepped forward, trying to offer something in the way of an explanation as to why they needed to leave in such a hurry.
"Look, I know this is all very strange, but you have to trust me. You don't want to be around when that thing wakes up. It's identified you all as secondary targets now, so it means it will come after you all if it can't get to Chris. You have to leave right now, or there's going to be a lot more blood."
Vin glanced at the ‘thing' as this man called it and realised it was a pretty accurate description. The stranger's face was barely recognizable after a barrage of bullet wounds and a shotgun blast to the head. What disgust Vin felt at its mutilation was immediately driven away by the heart-stopping realisation beneath the ruined flesh, was the gleam of slick, wet metal.
Suddenly, he began to understand the need for urgency.
"Okay," Vin nodded, somewhat dazed by what he was seeing. His mind was still grappling with the impossibility of it all but his conditioning to obey Chris's orders kept him centred on the moment. "Nathan and me will get the Doc and Ezra loaded up. We'll wait for you outside Mrs Travis's office."
"No." Chris shook his head, discarding that idea immediately. "You take the Doc and Ezra and keep going. Don't stop until you get to Nettie Wells's place. We'll meet you there."
Vin and Nathan exchanged glances before Vin nodded. "Good luck" he replied, and the two men hurried out of the saloon.*****
Chris Larabee had trouble believing any of this was happening.
Even when Darien Lambert explained to him what they faced was a machine, and it was specifically ordered to kill him, the unreality of the situation was difficult to swallow. Yet, he knew what he saw. Between the five of them, they put almost fifty rounds into the big bastard, and it was still standing. If not for Darien's timely intervention, he would be dead now.
After Vin and Nathan left with Ezra, Chris turned on his heels towards Buck and Josiah. Buck was trying to rouse Josiah who was still unconscious from being flung aside like a rag doll. Chris hoped he was not in the same condition as Ezra, who Chris knew just by looking at him, was hurt very badly. A part of Chris had trouble believing the gambler risked everything for him, and to his shame, Chris never thought Ezra was capable of such sacrifice.
"Come on," he ordered Darien with every expectation of being followed as he strode towards Buck. Chris had absolutely no idea how Buck Wilmington was going to react to seeing Darien Lambert for the first time, but at the moment coddling everyone's sensibilities was a minor consideration. If Darien was right, they had a little under an hour to get out of town before the machine woke up again and resumed its hunt.
"Buck, how is he?"
"I'm fine," Josiah grumbled as he sat up shakily. The preacher did not appear seriously hurt, although the scratches and cuts across his face might imply otherwise. Josiah shook off his disorientation and thought he might be okay until he noticed Darien behind Chris. "Maybe I hit my head harder than I thought."
"No, you're fine," Chris assured him, noticing the expression on Buck's face as he cast his eyes on Darien. "Buck, Josiah, this is Darien Lambert. He just saved all our asses so we can trust him. Unfortunately, we ain't got the time to get acquainted because we've got to get moving. That thing," he gestured to the machine covered with a man's skin, "is gonna wake soon, so we've got to be out of here before that happens."
Buck could not speak. He was too astonished by Darien, who was staring back at him with equal surprise. It was like staring at a mirror, and Buck felt his throat become dry as words escaped him for once in his life. Their saviour's resemblance to him wasn't just passing but damn near identical. Buck felt his heart pounding with something akin to fascination and pure shock.
Darien had to admit he could share Buck's sentiments because the resemblance between them was uncanny. No wonder so many people had confused him for Buck Wilmington. They could have been twins.
"You're Buck Wilmington." Darien felt uncomfortable by the awkward silence following Chris's introduction.
"I don't believe it…." Buck said, almost dazed. "That what I look like without a moustache?”
"That's what I look like with one?" Darien countered before looking at Chris, wishing to leave this subject behind for the moment. "We can compare notes later, but we need to get going. Now."
Thanks to Buck's infamous reputation around town, Darien was better prepared for this meeting, and recovered faster, while Buck was still reeling. Darien could almost empathize with his shock and made a mental note to discuss the issue with the man when things weren't so dire. "We don't have a lot of time before it re-routes its circuits and bypasses the short."
None of what Darien said made any sense to the three men, but the urgency in his voice was not lost on them. Like Chris, Buck and Josiah knew what they saw earlier and had no wish to go for another round with this creature, especially when they had failed so utterly to defeat it. If a strategic withdrawal was necessary for now, neither was going to argue with the decision.
"Josiah are you in a fit state to ride?"
"I'm okay," Josiah massaged his injured shoulder with one hand. "Where are we going?"
"As far away from that thing as possible." Chris forced himself to avoid looking at the machine as he spoke. "Buck, I need you to get Mary's wagon ready to ride and meet me at the front of her house."
"What about JD?" Buck exclaimed at the realisation one of their number was missing. Buck hadn't seen JD since this morning. His absence sent panic through Buck especially if the kid ran into this creature before its arrival at the saloon.
"He's with Mary," Darien spoke up, allaying that particular fear. "I met him earlier today," Darien explained seeing the genuine concern for JD's welfare in Buck's eyes. And wondered if JD engendered the same feeling in the other six men as well. "He thought I was you, and that's how I learnt where Chris would be."
Buck still found it difficult to regard Darien and had a thousand questions to ask the man, but for now, they could wait. He knew JD was safe, and that was all that mattered. If Chris said Darien saved their lives, then Buck would trust him, no matter how disconcerting it was to look at him.
"I'm on it." Buck nodded, remembering Chris's earlier request. "Josiah, if you're up to it, I could use your help."
"Just don't ask me to fight Jasper Cray for you." Josiah winced as he flexed his shoulder and felt a muscle pinch as he moved.
"Is it safe to come out?" The men were suddenly distracted by a feminine voice behind the bar counter. Glancing at the bar counter riddled in bullets and covered in the shattered glass fragments from a dozen bottles, they saw a familiar face emerging.
Inez had taken cover behind the bar when the shooting started and remained hidden during the carnage that followed. She stayed crouched beneath the counter as the continuous spray of glass, wood, alcohol and plaster began to covered the floor inches from her. Now that the gunfire and commotion ceased, and she could hear familiar voices, Inez risked poking her head out to see if the coast was clear.
"Inez!" She saw Buck leaping over the counter to reach her. When he discovered her safe and sound, Inez saw his eyes flooding with relief. She scrambled out from her hiding place, and they both met in a warm embrace because Inez was just grateful he was alive and well, after the ferocity of the gunfire. At this moment, she was almost ready to forgive him for his indiscretion with Virginia Cray.
"Are you okay honey?" he asked full of concern once they parted. His eyes raked over Inez, searching for any signs of injury.
"I'm fine," she said breathlessly before noticing the state of the saloon. Her eyes moved across the room, surveying the damage with increasing dismay.
“What happened?" She gasped, trying not to let the emotion reach her eyes. The saloon was not the most exciting place in the world, but it opened opportunities for her and a chance of a new life. Perhaps it was just an emotional reaction, but she had grown very fond of the place.
"I'm not going without Inez," Buck said firmly to Chris and the others.
Inez frowned at her fate being discussed without her input when she saw the man standing next to Chris. Her brown eyes widened in shock as he offered a little smile, which only made Inez turn back to Buck. For a few seconds, her eyes moved back and forth as if continued observation would prove this to be some hoax they were playing on her since the alternative was too impossible to believe. How could there be two of them? Her mind struggled to understand how this could be and soon decided it could not.
So she fainted.
Buck caught her as she slumped to the ground. Rolling his eyes in exasperation, he looked at Darien as if he were to blame for all this. "You can explain it to both of us later."*****
It required every ounce of will Mary Travis possessed to keep from running out of her house to investigate when the first sounds of gunfire erupted. However, each time she made a move towards the door, JD was there to remind her if the situation was as bad as it sounded, Mary's intrusion into it would be more of a liability than an asset. Despite herself, Mary knew JD was right. Entering the fray would endanger Chris's life because he would ignore his own safety to protect her.
While JD wanted to get her away as Darien suggested, Mary was adamant, refusing to go anywhere until she knew Chris was alright, especially now his child was slumbering inside her. She sat at the kitchen table, putting on a brave face while making JD another cup of coffee, knowing he wanted to be at the saloon almost as badly as she did.
To his credit, JD remained where he was because Darien Lambert charged him to protect her. He worshipped Chris too much to allow anything to happen to her. JD sat at the table with Mary; hands poised to go for his gun at a moment's notice if trouble arrived at her door. He would too, this young sheriff who wanted so badly to be accepted, and more importantly, be the man he always dreamed of becoming.
"I'm sure they're okay," JD assured her confidently after the firing ceased and the silence following it became more disturbing than the gunfire itself.
Mary merely nodded, keeping her anxieties from overwhelming her sense of reason. She knew she was riding precariously on a wave of emotion, induced by her current physical state, and fought hard to control it. Despite his attempt to be strong for her, Mary could see JD was just as anxious for their friends at the saloon.
The front door swung open abruptly, and Mary was on her feet, running down the hall to see who had returned before JD could even think to stop her.
"Mary!" Chris called out and met her in the hallway, where they embraced from the sheer relief of seeing each other alive in one piece.
"I was so worried. After Darien said you might be in danger, I didn't know what to think!" Mary knew she was rambling but did not care. She was so happy to see him at this moment, nothing else mattered.
"I'm okay," he stepped away, reassuring her he was alright because the fear in her eyes demanded it. "Mary, we don't have much time. Get some things together, we're leaving."
Mary stared in bewilderment before she found her voice. "Leaving, why ?"
"I don't have time to explain it to you," he drew away from her as he strode toward her office. "Just pack some things because we're going as soon as Buck gets here with the wagon."
"But…" Mary opened her mouth to protest when Chris paused in his tracks and met her gaze sharply, freezing the sound in her throat. It was rare Chris used that sharp glare on her, but the message conveyed was clear enough for her to know this was not the time for arguments.
"I'm going, I'm going!” She backtracked to the stairs leading to the upper floor of the house.
"Thank you." He shook his head and continued into her office.
God save him from stubborn women.
"JD, get out here!" Chris called out as he searched through the small room and located the shotgun Mary kept in her office. It sat in a corner, safely hidden by a filing cabinet. The weapon was formidable to say the least, and was similar in make and model to the one he used on the machine, or the Terminator, as Darien called it.
"You're alright," JD exclaimed with visible relief as he and Darien appeared in the doorway at the same time. Darien ruffled his hair, and Chris wondered just how much alike he and Buck really were.
"I'm in better shape than Ezra and Josiah anyway," Chris said grimly, seeing the apparent concern in the youngster's face. "Get your horse and find something for Darien to ride. We're moving out as soon as Buck gets here."
"What's happening Chris?" JD asked perplexed, unable to hide his confusion even though the most immediate questions regarding the welfare of his friends were answered.
"Not now JD," Chris said, searching through Mary's desk and finding the drawer where she kept the shells for the gun. He loaded the weapon quickly and snapped it shut with a sharp flick of his wrist when he was done. "Get going!" He barked at the young man, forcing JD to nod mutely before hurrying out.
"What will happen when it wakes up?" Chris asked Darien now they were alone.
"I don't know," Darien admitted honestly. "I've never run into one of these things before. I only know what I do because someone else told me. I can tell you how its mind works. The moment it wakes up and finds you gone, it will start narrowing the possibilities of where you might go."
Chris absorbed the information quietly. Darien knew Chris needed to comprehend why this was happening, but so far kept himself from asking due to the urgency of the situation. There was little time to know the man in any depth, but Darien was starting to get a good sense about Chris Larabee.
If John Connor was to become the great man he was destined to be, then Darien could well understand from where that substance would come. Darien could see the presence Chris commanded over the others, the sheer force of personality that made everyone look to him for guidance. A man like this could be anything he wanted to be, so why was he nothing more than a gunslinger?
Mary's footsteps down the stairs prompted them both to return their attention to the task at hand as she descended carrying a valise and wearing a riding cloak over her shoulders for the journey ahead. Chris handed Darien the shotgun as he walked past and went to meet her.
"That it?" He looked at the single bag she was carrying.
"I didn't know how long we were going," Mary replied, searching his eyes for the answer he couldn't give her. Mary never knew Chris to run from anything and the fact they were leaving now told Mary how bad the situation was. Even looking into his eyes offered her no reassurance.
Chris met Darien's gaze and sighed. "Neither do I."*****
Alexandra Styles lifted her skirts and ran out of the house she bought only a month ago at the first eruption of gunfire. Even after such a brief stay in this community, she learned one thing with absolute certainty. There was seldom any trouble in this town that did not involve the seven men charged to defend it. Whether they were the cause or the cure was beside the point. It was inevitable, at least one of them would be in the thick of it.
She paused at the end of the street, hearing the roar of gunfire coming from the saloon, with shots fired in such rapid succession the thunderous sound made her cringe. Fighting the urge to see what was happening was almost tearing her to pieces, but she knew she had to remain outside the glass walls of danger's prison.
Alex sought solace in the declarations Ezra Standish made on numerous occasions he was nothing more than a businessman with no wish to be a hero. The belief he remained in Four Corners because it suited his purpose to stay with the seven, to create an environment in which his business could thrive, was a facade to convince everyone he was still the same scoundrel.
Except she knew better.
It was more than just a place to him, and the seven were more than just a group he rode with. They were his friends, and she was starting to believe they were the first real friends he ever had in his life, who knew him for what he was, warts and all. Alex understood this all too well, for since the very moment she met him, She recognized a man struggling hard to be something else and admired him for wishing to be a better person. He was fighting an upbringing that gave him no choice but to become anything but what he had, and Alex knew Ezra saw her affection for him as an affirmation he'd reached some form of respectability.
When the gunfire stopped abruptly, and the sounds of fighting ended, she saw Vin Tanner running through the darkened streets and was almost tempted to follow him. However, she kept a firm restraint on herself, knowing the tracker would not stand for it. He wouldn't tolerate her risking herself and possibly proving to be a liability to the fight taking place.
Besides, he hated her.
So she remained where she was, with sides of her complex inner self fighting for dominance. The part of Alexandra Styles who cared for Ezra Standish would not be satisfied unless she could run into the saloon and see his condition for herself. However, the appearance of Nathan and Vin coming through the doors carrying Ezra, silenced the frightened woman inside her and summoned the doctor to the fore.
“Miss Alex!” Nathan exclaimed in surprise as she appeared before them in the street, panting hard like she had run all the way here. Nathan guessed she probably heard the commotion and had come to see if she could help. He hated she was right. Ezra did need help, and Nathan was not sure he was able to rise to the occasion.
"How bad...” Alex started to say when she saw the blood and the crush bones of his skull. For a moment, the horror of it made her dizzy before Alex realised she would be no good to him if she didn't compose herself. Now, more than ever, she had to be completely focused on how she would save his life. Ezra didn't need her to be his ‘paramour' as he put it, he needed a doctor.
"I think part of his skull is crushed," Nathan informed her as they continued forward. Alex kept in step with them, making a hasty examination as they continued on the move.
She checked his pupils and examined the dilation because it was the fastest and most accurate way of confirming Nathan's diagnosis. His breathing was extremely shallow and as she ran her fingers over the pulpish mess that was his forehead, felt the indentation beneath the flesh that should have been halted by bone.
“He's got a depressed fracture! I need to treat him right now, or he's going to die. Nathan, I'll need your help.”
"We need to keep moving." Vin reminded Nathan of Chris's' orders to them. "You got a wagon?" he asked Alex.
"Yes." She nodded, bewildered by the relevance of the question. "Why?"
"Where is it?" He demanded not wishing to waste any time on questions he could answer later. After what he saw inside the saloon and Chris's warning of the impending danger, Vin had no wish for her or any one of them to be around when that monster awoke.
"At the livery," Alex answered hastily. "Look, I need to get Ezra up to the clinic. His skull has been fractured, and he is bleeding into his brain. If the pressure isn't relieved, he'll die or have permanent brain damage!” She stressed the full implications so they would understand she had to get to work immediately. While she was confident Nathan understood, Vin was another thing entirely.
"Go get your doctoring bag and anything else you might need to fix Ezra and meet us there. We're moving out." Vin said firmly, sounding as if he had not heard a word she said. In truth, he was perfectly aware of the danger to Ezra, but at this moment, the threat did not confine itself to just Ezra's injuries.
"Moving out?" She stared at him blankly, wondering if he was utterly stupid or just plain ignorant. "I don't think you understand, if I don't operate on him soon, he will die!"
"No, you don't understand!" Vin snapped at her, furious at the argument because he could see the shape Ezra was in and hated not being able to stay put and help him. "Whoever did this to him is still here, and if we don't get moving, tending to him is gonna be the least of our worries. Now get going!" Vin barked so sharply, even Nathan was surprised by his manner. Vin's temper seemed to be extremely short these days, making Nathan wonder what had gotten under his skin.
Alex fought the urge to react to Vin's abrasive manner, feeling a surge of embarrassment and hurt at being spoken to in such a way. However, if he was right about the peril they were in, then she was delaying every moment she stood here arguing with him. In frustration, she looked to Nathan for guidance.
"Please, Miss Alex, Vin's right, we don't have a lot of time."
There were very few people Alex considered close confidants in this town, and Nathan knew he was one of them. If he said so, she would believe him.
"Damnit!” She cursed in frustration, deferring to his judgement. Shooting Vin a look of dark defiance she could not express verbally because of the situation, Alex surrendered to his demand. "You know which one's my horse," she said to Nathan, not looking at Vin before she turned on her heels and retreated up the street towards home.
As Nathan and Vin headed towards the livery with Ezra, Vin glanced over his shoulder at Alex's departing form, hating himself for speaking to her that way, but not as much as what he felt for her.*****
Alex never believed she could move so fast in her life. She burst through the door of her clinic and quickly gathered all the things she would need, having made a mental checklist of what instruments would be required before she stepped through the door. There was no question of her not going with them on their flight from whatever was in pursuit. Ezra needed surgery, and as much as she believed in Nathan, the procedure she was about to perform required expertise beyond the healer's observations as a stretcher-bearer.
Also, if Ezra died, and that was a genuine possibility, she wouldn't be jailed for conducting illegal surgery, but Nathan almost certainly would be if anyone discovered it. So it had to be her, for Ezra's sake as well as Nathan's.
Alex stuffed some clothing in a bag before running out of her house, her personal items in one hand while her doctor's bag was clutched firmly in the other. Hopefully, she had not been remiss in anything, but there was no time to double-check. As it was, Alex managed to pack little more than a day's worth of clothing before deciding enough time was wasted on the endeavour. She saw the extent of Ezra's injuries and knew what was coming if she did not reach him soon.
Alex had not run like this since she was a girl, and by the time she reached the livery where the two men hitched her mare Calliope to her wagon, she was panting hard, trying to catch her breath while forcing herself to move at the same pace. Both Vin and Nathan were already on the back of the wagon with Ezra, and when she approached, saw Vin look up at her in panic.
Placing her belongings on the wagon, Alex tried to climb up until Vin caught her by the waist and lifted her the rest of the way with one sharp pull. Nathan was lying next to Ezra, who was still unconscious, trying to staunch the bleeding she knew would not stop until she worked on him.
“His head is cracked open, I can't stop the bleeding!” Nathan cried out she scrambled towards him across the buckboard.
“He's hemorrhaging into his brain,” Alex said grimly as she pried open her bag. “Set him down. We don't have a lot of time.”
"I'll get us moving," Vin replied, feeling the need to do something because he was of no help to Ezra and would only get in Alex and Nathan's way by remaining. They had to get to Nettie Wells's place where it was safe, and Ezra could get the rest he needed. Vin could do that much for Ezra at least.
“I need light,” she told Nathan, and the healer nodded as the buckboard started moving. She gestured Nathan towards the small lamp she kept on the wagon, for those occasions when she was forced to travel in the evening. Fumbling for her bag, Alex searched for a small bottle of ether. Even though Ezra was unconscious, he needed to be under for what she was about to do. Unscrewing the lid, she poured the clear liquid into a white handkerchief before pressing it over Ezra's face.
As the wagon started moving out of the livery compound towards the main street, Nathan could smell the acrid smell of pure alcohol as Alex soaked her hands in it as well as use it to clean the blood off Ezra's face. The lamp provided some illumination, but even Nathan knew it was not enough.
“Do you know what trephining is?” She asked through the light, allowing her to see the skin around the wound.
Nathan blinked. “I only ever saw it done once at the army hospital during the war. I ain't never tried it myself.”
Nathan witnessed the procedure requiring drilling into a man's brain, and it wasn't successful. It was the one bit of surgery he refused to do because it needed expertise he just didn't have, and the consequences to the patient, too high if he got it wrong.
“Try what?” Vin shouted from the front.
“Well we've got to do it, or he won't survive the hour,” Alex said shortly, ignoring Vin. She hated the fact she'd have to carry out a procedure like this on a moving buckboard. Worse yet, Alex needed Nathan to hold the light above her and Ezra, so she couldn't even count on the healer to assist. She was going to have to do this on her own. “‘I have to relieve the pressure on the brain. He's bleeding in his skull. We'll have to trephine it and hope to God that aren't any clots.”
“Okay,” Nathan nodded, able to see through the glow of the lamp her attempt to maintain her calm under the pressure of keeping Ezra alive. Considering she and Ezra had been tentatively courting since her arrival in Four Corners, cutting into Ezra couldn't be an easy thing. Nathan did not know how he'd handle it if he found himself in a similar position if Rain needed help.
Yes, he did, he would do the exact same thing that Alex was doing now. Grit his teeth and get it done.
Alex soaked the instrument she retrieved from her medical bag with the alcohol to sterilize it. At the moment, they were riding out in the open with dust, and God only knew what in the air, so the least she could do was ensure some measure of sterility. "The ether will keep him out until we're done. I'll administer morphine for the pain when it's over.”
“What can I do?” Nathan asked, wanting to help because it wasn't right that this was all on her.
“I need you to hold the light,” Alex raised her eyes to him and gave him a little smile of gratitude. “This is going to be hard enough without me being able to see anything.”
“You don't gotta worry about that, I'll make sure of it.”
“Okay,” Alex took a deep breath and pressed the bone punch against Ezra's wounded skull and got to work.*****
For the next hour as the buckboard continued toward Nettie Wells's spread, Alex reminded herself she was working on just another patient, not someone she personally cared for. Clinical detachment was one of the things she had great difficulty with at medical school, and she still bristled in anger, remembering how they'd just attributed it to her being female. To compete in their world, Alex learned to be an expert at detachment and never was it more necessary than at this moment.
Keeping her thoughts singularly focussed on treating the injury to Ezra's skull, Alex relieved the pressure of fluid build-up through trepanning, a procedure risky in ideal conditions, while removing fragments of bone to ensure there was no chance of any clots forming. It was all battlefield surgery, conducted by bad light in a moving wagon where anything could go wrong.
After what seemed like an eternity but only amounted to an hour, it was finally done, and it was anyone's guess whether Ezra would survive the night. She'd done all she could and took it as a good sign he was still breathing. Once she'd sutured and cleaned the wound, Alex administered morphine to keep him under for as long as possible.
When Nathan set down the lamp and took over, Alex leaned over to kiss his cheek lightly, before withdrawing to one side of the buckboard.
"Are you alright, Miss Alex?" Nathan asked as he started to apply gauze and bandages, allowing her to catch her breath and regain her composure. Her hands and clothes were still covered in blood.
"I'm fine," she said softly, looking drained as she cleaned her hands.
"Is he going to be okay?" Vin asked from the front of the wagon, "What happened?"
"Miss Alex had to cut him open a little to bring down the swelling in his brain,” Nathan explained because Alex could not. The way she was cleaning her hands with a soiled rag, Nathan guessed she wasn't getting it off quickly enough. “Right now, it's too soon to tell.”*****
The Terminator awoke precisely 43.02 minutes after the emergency shutdown was initiated.
Internal chronometers registered the lapse in time before its neural net reset, activating a self-diagnostic to determine the cause of the short, resulting in the complete shutdown of its systems. Designed with numerous safeguards, the Terminator was designed with contingencies for every possible misadventure that could be visited on it. The war with humans made such a level of precaution necessary because of the human ability to improvise.
Once reactivated, Skynet's formidable sentience examined the encounter. The weapon used was not unfamiliar. Capable of producing an electrical discharge of up to 25,000 volts, the taser could stun a human into unconsciousness and cause a temporary overload in a Terminator. Fortunately, Skynet had built-in safeguards for such attacks, so the Terminator was merely shut down instead of being rendered inoperable.
But it was neither the weapon or its effects that caused Skynet concern. Tasers were weapons native to the latter half of the 20th century as an alternative for projectile weapons. Used by law enforcement and personal security, there was no conceivable reason such a gun should exist in the 19th century.
More concerning was the conclusion if it were brought here from the future, how was it done? The time displacement unit utilised by Skynet did not allow for inanimate objects to journey through time, with the Terminator able to do it only because of its human skin. Was it possible John Connor had overcome this limitation?
The Terminator came to the conclusion it was not the only time traveller in this period.
The cyborg sat up ramrod straight. Roving its exposed red eye over the wreckage of the saloon, it found it was alone on the premises. Aside from the bodies of those terminated by stray fire, the primary and secondary targets were nowhere in sight. It detected the approach of other humans closing in on its position.
Standing up quickly, the Terminator calculated mission success would be achieved if it left the area and search for secondary targets to lead it to the primary. Before that, however, it needed to conduct self-maintenance before the search could resume. It registered multiple injuries to the organic covering over its titanium endoskeleton. They were merely superficial wounds, and it could function well enough despite them, but it made infiltration difficult.
Its audio sensors identified numerous voices approaching the establishment, closing in on the position of the main entrance. The Terminator scanned the building and found an alternate exit through the kitchen area. Striding forward, it entered the room and found it to be relatively untouched by the firefight earlier. Several pots sitting on top of a wood stove were overflowing, their contents sloshing over the fire hissing in retaliation.
The rear door was closed but not locked when the Terminator reached it. By this time, the voices moved past the door, and it could hear their footsteps on the main floor. There was an increased level of agitation as the humans outside discussed in loud voices what transpired. Their presence hastened the Terminator's departure.
By the time anyone inspected the kitchen, all they found was an open door leading into the dark night beyond.*****
At the same time, the Terminator was on the move, Chris Larabee and his companions were well on their way to Nettie Wells's spread.
Everyone was still in a state of shock from the events of the last hour, and Darien could sense their need to understand. It was in the rules that future events were to be kept from those who might endanger it. Even Sahmbi understood the importance of it. The doctor made a foolish bid to alter future events in his initial arrival to the 20th century but apparently abandoned the notion to maintain the integrity of the timeline. Whether or not it was an afterthought to the fact, Sahmbi realized he could endanger his own existence by changing the future.
What, Darien was now faced was something of a new experience. The rules said nothing about keeping the knowledge of future events from those whose survival was necessary for it to unfold as it should. He did not know the others with Chris Larabee and Mary Travis, but the duo trusted them with a great deal more than just their lives, so Darien found it was important they understood what was at stake.
"Now can we find out what this is all about?" Buck asked impatiently, needing answers of his own, particularly why this stranger was wearing his face.
"You can decide if the others need to know," Darien told Chris, ignoring Buck's demand as they rode through the darkness. Sarah had told Darien Kyle, and John Connor opted to tell her everything when the first Terminator came after her, and the knowledge saved her life from all the subsequent attempts. If Skynet sent anyone else after Chris Larabee, he needed to know why.
"Alright." Chris was able to accept those terms. "Now, why does it want me?"
He could not imagine anything that could justify the relentless determination of the machine to end his life. It was willing to kill everyone in the saloon just to reach him, and Chris shuddered to think what else it might be prepared to do to achieve that end.
"You've got to keep an open mind about this," Darien warned, mindful of the possibility they might think he was insane. "I know what I'm about to tell you sounds far fetched."
"Normally I'd agree with you," Chris replied softly. "But we know what we saw, so tell me.”
As always, the future seemed to be Darien's exclusive responsibility to maintain but never more urgently than tonight. It went against the grain to tell all, but he could not guarantee Skynet wouldn't make another attempt even if they managed to put down this Terminator. For the future to unfold, Chris needed to know what he was up against.
Darien began, not looking at anything as he spoke, telling them the story the way Sarah heard it, from Kyle Reese. "In a little more than a century, all this will be gone."
Silence followed, and it was Mary who was the first to break it.
"Do you mean in the future?"
"Yes, I do." He met her startled blue-grey eyes. There was disbelief in her face, in all their faces except Chris's, but he knew it would not be there for long. Eventually, they would believe. Darien had no doubt of this.
"Go on." Chris urged.
"A century from now, there will be a war." Darien resumed as the horse continued on its lethargic pace. He was never a good storyteller. "Three billion people will die in an instant."
Darien waited for them to process it because these people didn't see numbers in the billions, millions perhaps, but not billions. That scale didn't exist for them on any level at this time. Not yet.
Someone sucked in their breath, and Darien thought it might be the preacher, the one called Josiah.
"In the future, machines don't need men to run them. In fact, we tend to rely on them to do most of the work for us. We use them for everything, to make life convenient, to run our lights, power, information, banks and,” he paused, “our weapons.”
“Weapons?” Chris asked.
Darien turned to look at him. “Mankind doesn't do anything better than making weapons, and we made weapons that can turn the world into ash a dozen times over.” A sense of shame overcame him trying to explain modern warfare to Chris and his friends. “We built a machine that would control all of these weapons for us. You have to understand, while our machines were smart, they weren't independent. You can teach them to do a lot of things, but they didn't think on their own. The Terminator was built by the first machine which could.”
“And it started this war?” JD asked, remembering the voice he and Mary heard inside the lady's kitchen. Even if he did not wholly buy into Darien Lambert's tale, he could not discount what he witnessed.
"They called it Skynet," Darien answered without hesitation and noticed the silence seemed to stretch into the empty plains around them. "Skynet launched our own weapons against us and wiped out one-third of the planet's population. There were survivors, not many but enough for it to begin immediate extermination of them all. I was told it went on for thirty-one years. Humanity sat on the verge of extinction."
Extinction. Chris thought of the buffalo, hunted so much they were almost all gone. When using that animal as a comparison, Chris felt his blood run cold.
“Then, out of nowhere, a man appeared. His name was John Connor, and he taught the survivors how to fight, how to organise. He turned back the tide of extinction and brought the human race back from the brink. By the thirty-first year of the war, John was the leader of the human resistance and leading them, he defeated Skynet.”
Darien thought about that boy with the wry smile and the eyes haunted by the knowledge of what destiny might have planned for him. It was too much for any child to bear, even if his mother promised Judgement Day was averted.
"So, we won…" JD exclaimed, not understanding what this then had to do with them.
"Skynet built a time machine, and it decided if it could not win the war in the future, it would destroy the man who was responsible for its defeat in the past. Skynet sent a Terminator back through time, not unlike the one you just faced in the saloon."
"That Terminator is a machine? We saw it bleed."
"It's camouflage," Darien explained promptly. "It's like a skin on a snake, just covering so it can blend in and find the target."
"Why Chris?" Mary asked, looking at Chris from the wagon as the words escaped her lips. Even though it was late summer, she felt a cold shudder run through her.
"To win, Skynet had to wipe out John Connor's entire existence. Killing him wasn't enough. The war was won, and if he died, the resistance was strong enough to continue without him. Skynet had to keep him from ever teaching humanity how to fight back. The first Terminator was sent into the past to find John's mother, to kill him before he was born. Fortunately, John learned about the plan, and he was able to send someone back to stop it. The man who went back was no more than a kid really, 19 years old, and had been fighting a war from the day he was born. His name was Kyle Reese, and he found Sarah Connor.”
"Sarah?" Chris reacted, wondering if this was some strange coincidence or was fate amusing itself at his expense.
"Sarah and Kyle defeated the Terminator, but not before the Terminator killed Kyle. Unfortunately what Skynet never knew was Kyle was John's father. It's what we called a predestination paradox, something that is meant to happen."
"So he was meant to go back in time, to meet her and father John," Josiah stated.
"Pretty much." Darien smiled. "Almost makes you believe in God, doesn't it?"
"Something like that." Josiah returned the smile with one of his own.
"So, John is born." Mary urged him to continue. "She raised him alone then?"
"As far as I know. Kyle tells Sarah enough about the future for her to stop certain events from happening. In essence, she stops Skynet from being built, which in turn ends the war before it even begins. History continues from that point quite well. We survive as a species, go onto better things, and life pretty much happens the way it's meant to. I was born in the 22nd century, where man is still running things. I had to return to the 20th century when criminals from my time escaped there. It's how I met Sarah."
"This is hurting my head,” Buck complained, trying to wrap his mind around the concept of time travel like someone skipping from stone to stone.”
"Well time is a funny thing," Darien sighed, not relishing the idea of explaining temporal mechanics and alternate realities to this group, but he had to try. “It's like a river, it goes in one direction, but a random event can create forks. Now sometimes these forks become rivers of their own, but they're all still there, one big river. The time I came from is what happened when Sarah stopped Skynet.”
"I think I understand." Mary nodded. "It's like every moment in time has its own outcome. Like what would happen if I had crossed left instead of right, the potential for both still exist?"
"That's right." Darien was impressed by her acumen. "Skynet realized its Terminator failed and decided if it could not kill John's mother, then it could kill his father. This time, Skynet was not going to just kill a person, it was going to wipe out an entire family line for the next 120 years."
"It wants to erase Kyle Reese from existence," Josiah said in understanding. "If it wipes out Kyle Reese, then it changes things entirely. There wouldn't even be a war."
"Or humanity," Darien concluded in confirmation of what Josiah grasped. "An associate of mine returning to the 22nd century found a world without any human beings whatsoever. A complete mechanized society. All this because of you, Chris."
"Me?" Chris looked at him blankly.
"Don't you see," Buck exclaimed, realizing what Darien was talking about. "It's you, Chris, it needs to be rid of you because this Reese fella is one of your kin."
"Oh my God." Mary gasped, causing Chris to turn to her sharply. She was turning positively pale, and Chris knew it wasn't because of this fantastic story. Even Inez was eyeing her with worry, struck by the blanket terror in her eyes.
"Mary, what is it?" Inez asked her friend.
"Nothing," she dismissed the question, unable to tell Chris she was expecting his child after what they were just told. "I'm not feeling well" she tried desperately to force the blind panic out of her eyes before Chris noticed it.
It was too late, he saw it. Mary was lying, and worst of all, she was lying to him. There was fear in her eyes, not merely caution but genuine terror. What could be so awful she was so afraid to tell him?
Inez exchanged a perplexed look with Chris, shrugging her shoulders helplessly because she did not know what was wrong with Mary either. Chris wished they were alone so he could allay her anxieties, but at the moment, it was impossible. He promised himself to get a moment alone with her when they got to Nettie's to find out what was wrong.
"So this thing wants to kill me because I'm related to Kyle Reese? Is that right?"
"I'm sorry Chris," Darien answered with a nod once the odd exchange between Chris and Mary had passed, putting an end to the question once and for all. "According to the genealogical records of the 22nd century, Kyle Reese is a direct descendant of you and Mary."
So now he knew for sure, and in knowing, understood just how much was at stake. Yet despite the implications of Darien Lambert's statement, Chris could not help but take some pleasure in knowing he and Mary would be husband and wife, and there would be children and not just children, but also grandchildren.
Suddenly, something clicked inside his mind.
Chris wondered how he could be so stupid as fragments of the last few weeks fell into place. It was right in front of him, and he hadn't seen it. The short temper, the exhaustion and the loss of appetite, the symptoms Chris should have recognised before now. Just how long did he think he could share her bed without there being some consequences of their union?
"Mary, are you pregnant?"
His question froze the conversation around them dead in its tracks. Mary turned to him slowly; her face reflecting nothing less than pure astonishment and in her eyes, he saw his answer.
"Yes." She nodded after a moment, almost dazed by the insight allowing him to make that leap. “I found out for sure today.”
Ever since they began this flight from Four Corners, Mary had been aching to tell him but wanted a more private place than this to do it. Then she heard Darien's story and suddenly, it wasn't just something intimate between them, the baby became the future, and that was simply too much for Mary. She needed to catch her breath.
No one said a word as they stared at both Mary or Chris, waiting in anticipation for one of them to speak. Finally, it was Chris who broke the silence.
"Darien," Chris spoke with supreme calm, showing absolutely no signs of being affected by the stunning revelation he just received. “I'm going to guess if this thing can't get me, it will go after Mary?"
Darien nodded slowly, feeling sympathy for the beautiful Mary Travis who was clearly reeling from what he'd just told them. Darien tried to imagine what she must have been feeling, to be pregnant and unmarried in this day and age while being told some mechanized monster from the future was on the hunt for her unborn child and its father.
"Yes, that's right." Darien nodded, making no attempt to conceal the harsh reality from the man. "It has a battery life of 120 years, it can wait you out for a long time if necessary. If it can't get you or Mary, it will try for anyone of your children before it finally powers down."
"How the hell do we fight something like this?" JD demanded, hoping Darien had an answer. He had been privy to some earth-shattering news in the last hour and needed to know someone had a plan.
Chris had no idea. His first impulse was to take Mary far away from here and hide her away until the danger was over, but like Darien said, this thing could wait them out. If it didn't get him or Mary, it would get their child, the one that even now slumbered inside Mary. It could end up living with the Sword of Damocles hanging over its head for the rest of its life.
"If you care to make a detour when we get to the Wells place, I may have a solution," Darien spoke up because he saw Chris debate these things silently. It was understandable the gunslinger should feel overwhelmed by all this. Skynet and the Terminators were battles to be fought generations after him, and yet Darien could see him, accepting it, working out in his head how to handle the situation. That much Darien Lambert knew about Chris Larabee by now.
"At this point," Chris let out a sigh. "I'm open to suggestions."
Darien nodded. "I guarantee you, you'll love this one."
Truth or Dare
There were moments when she wondered at what exact point he came to mean so much to her. She was an old woman with only a niece to care for, and Casey was more than a handful at times, even more so now the impetuous tomboy was evolving into a young woman. There was no need to feel so warmly towards a former bounty hunter with a price on his head and eyes older than his years. Yet Vin Tanner had become a part of her world, ever since he and his friends came riding to her rescue almost a year ago.
Thanks to the seven, the land her husband died taming was still hers and not the property of a greedy land baron waiting for the inevitable arrival of the railroad.
Nettie saw in Vin's eyes the need to know what it was to have a mother's love. His own had died when he was too young, and Nettie knew she reminded Vin of the woman who bore him, from the fragmentary memories of his childhood. Since their first meeting, he often rode to see her, sometimes staying for supper and ensuring he was available for whatever chores she was unable to do herself.
During those times, she got to know him because of the intuition that came only with age and experience. People found him quiet while Nettie found him shy. Too much time alone made it difficult for Vin to relate to people, and it was only now, he was starting to emerge from his shell and recognise the need for human contact.
She had not seen him for a month and was more than surprised when he turned up with Nathan, Ezra and the new doctor whose arrival Nettie was aware of but had yet to meet in person. As Casey helped Nathan and Vin settle the injured Ezra Standish in one of the guestrooms, the doctor asked for a place to wash away the blood on her hands and clothes.
The young woman was polite and refined, extraordinarily beautiful in a way capable of making men go wild with desire should she choose to use her looks for that purpose. Judging by how she conducted herself, practical and compassionate, Nettie guessed she did not. Once she cleaned up, she disappeared outside, citing the need for fresh air.
Vin emerged shortly after she left the house, explaining to Nettie Nathan would keep an eye on Ezra until the others arrived. Nettie sent Casey to bed, aware the young woman would only fidget until JD came and Nettie would just get tired of watching her.
After supplying Nathan with a cup of hot coffee, Nettie joined Vin at the kitchen table. She noticed something different about him almost immediately. There was an unusual edge to his manner, a surliness never before present. She could not understand what caused it until he spoke.
"Where did she go?" Vin inquired gruffly as Nettie poured him a cup of coffee.
"Out for some air."
Nettie caught the spark of blue fire in his eyes. The reaction was slight, but it was telling. Nettie doubted anyone but she or maybe Chris Larabee might have seen the intensity of it. Then again, Chris was also a man, and they often missed the obvious things women saw as plain as day.
"I reckon she needs it." He shrugged, appearing indifferent as he stared into the black depths of his coffee cup, his expression reflective. "She saved Ezra's life."
Nettie watched his face, and the truth was so close to the surface, it was astonishing no one else saw it. "She's beautiful."
"I suppose." He gulped down a mouthful of coffee, refusing to examine the comment too carefully.
He was detached, even for Vin and Nettie eased back into her chair, watching him as she finally asked the question on the tip of her tongue. "How long has this been going on Vin?"
Vin looked up at Nettie, not understanding at first. "What?"
"How long have you been feeling this way about her?"
Vin's eyes widened at the declaration and the expression on his face was like that of a child who had been caught doing something wrong. The cup in his hand lowered so suddenly, it banged against the table with enough force to slosh hot liquid against the wood.
"I don't feel anything about Alex," he insisted but glanced at the door of the room Ezra was presently occupying to make sure no one else heard Nettie's extraordinary statement.
Nettie could see her question rattled him because Vin probably assumed he had hidden his emotions well beneath his usual stoic manner. Except for Nettie, that is. The old woman had always been able to read the boy clearly, and right now, his feelings were an open book. Knowing Vin however, he would keep it bottled up inside and never do anything about it until it twisted him into a thousand knots.
"It's the first time I've ever heard you call a woman by her first name."
"That's what she tells everyone to call her. Call me Alex, she says." Vin returned defensively, and even as he said it, he could not hold back a little smile at that particular quirk of Alexandra Styles. Catching the stare Nettie was giving him, Vin hated it that she could see through him so clearly. He valued his privacy, even from her.
"She doesn't belong to me." He stated so Nettie would understand why this was so hard for him. "She's Ezra's."
Men , Nettie almost shook her head in exasperation. "Maybe you should check with her first."
The suggestion registered on Vin's face as utter panic. The idea of exposing his emotions to anyone was frankly terrifying, and Vin was not about to entertain it in any shape or form. He knew from his past when he fell for someone, he fell hard . Perhaps it was never experiencing the whole ritual of courtship one was supposed to go through like a baptism of fire, that made him so ill-prepared to deal with women.
When he met Charlotte, he lost himself so deeply, he never considered restraint might have been necessary. Realising what he had done, he sent her back to her husband with the ripped shreds of his heart. Vin suffered in silence, refusing to let anyone know just how much it hurt because men who knew how to handle their dalliances without it cutting them to pieces surrounded him. Afterwards, Vin swore he'd never find himself in such a position again.
Until this beautiful woman with her golden skin stepped off the coach and Vin found himself completely and utterly lost.
Naturally, his luck being what it was, Ezra got there first, and now it was too late. Alex chose Ezra, and as much as it twisted his gut every time he saw them together, he wished the gambler his best even though he was also angry at the unfairness of it. Angry because when he and Alex were in each other's company, he could feel the connection between them and because it would destroy his friendship with Ezra if the man ever learned about Vin's infatuation.
"It doesn't matter. Nothing is ever going to happen." Vin started, placing particular emphasis on the word 'ever'. Getting to his feet, he headed towards the door, needing to leave this room and this conversation.
"You may regret it." Nettie pointed out as Vin twisted the door handle to leave.
"I already do."*****
The relief at having not killed Ezra escaped Alex in a flood of tears.
When Alex climbed unto the buckboard, she heard the helplessness in Nathan's voice because they both knew how perilous a skull injury could be. The healer's lack of experience in this type of surgery for all his knowledge weighed heavily on him. During the ride to Nettie Wells's property, Alex maintained her calm, projecting confidence because Nathan needed to believe she could do it and to a degree, so did she.
What Alex did not reveal was her own terror at performing such a procedure. This wasn't like pulling bullets out of a lung or sewing up tissue, this was possibly the most complicated surgery a fully qualified doctor could be called on to perform. Alex didn't have the heart to tell him, she had never carried out the trepanning procedure before tonight. No one at medical school dared to allow a woman to participate in an operation so serious and their prejudice relegated her to the role of observer.
Beneath the dim glow of the lamp Nathan had been holding, Alex hid how utterly terrified she was throughout the surgery, performing every step in the procedure with a held breath, while her heart pounded in her chest.
Later on, staring at the basin of bloody water, the enormity of what she'd done impacted on her. Alex felt as if the air had drained out of the room because she couldn't breathe. Despite her success, she finally had time to process the knife's edge upon which she conducted the surgery and felt as if the walls of the small room were closing in on her. While the doctor in her recognised the sensation as being a particularly nasty case of panic, it was all Alex could do to keep from screaming.
She rushed out of the house after offering some vague excuse, desperate to be in the open, so she could breathe in the fresh air and be alone with her thoughts. Alex had no idea where she was going when she walked into the darkness, stopping only when she near the edge of the creek, a short distance from the house. Once there, she vented her bottled up emotions in soft, ragged sobs.
She could have killed him. Alex didn't delude herself into thinking Ezra was alive because of her skills, he was alive because she had gotten lucky. The conditions in which the surgery was conducted was horrific, and God only knew how she'd managed to perform it without costing Ezra his life. Worse yet, it wasn't the idea of harming Ezra that was so terrible, but the possibility that Alex could have killed a patient. She was a doctor, she lived by the oath to do no harm. If she had failed tonight, she would have done plenty.
Continuing to sob, because she needed to purge herself of these discordant emotions, Alex did not notice she was no longer alone.
Alex winced at the intrusion of Vin Tanner in what was a wholly private moment. She needed solitude to rebuild her composure and was not in any condition to engage in another session of verbal sparring with him. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw the top of the silhouette of his slouch hat as he approached through the bushes and decided she had no choice in the matter. Quickly wiping the tears from her face, she cleared her throat and tried to look somewhat composed before they faced each other.
"Yes?" She answered, sniffling one last time before he came into view.
After the conversation with Nettie, the last thing Vin wanted was to run into the source of his troubles. He took a walk to clear his head when he noticed the tracks she left behind in the dirt, leading away from the house. Considering the danger they were facing, it wasn't wise for her to be wandering about alone. Against his will, Vin followed the trail of broken branches and crushed twigs leading to her. It was only when he neared the creek, did he stop in mid-stride and became rooted to the spot at the sound of her tears.
Vin was incapable of ignoring a weeping woman, especially when it was Alex, and felt compelled to investigate even though he knew nothing good would come of it. Common sense told him he ought to leave her be, but he couldn't help it. Speaking with Nettie exposed the raw nerve he'd been trying so hard to ignore these past weeks, and now that it was out, Vin had no idea how to bury it again.
"You alright?" Vin saw her cheek glisten with the tears she hadn't managed to wipe away. The distress on her lovely features was plain, even if she was taking great pains to hide it. Vin took a step closer after a brief debate, wondering if he should provide her with a shoulder to cry on, and decided against it because it was courting peril. Still, he could not walk away from her when she clearly needed comforting.
"I'm fine." She spoke utterly oblivious to what was going on in his head.
"You don't look it."
"I'm just suffering a little post-surgery nerves," Alex lied, not wishing Vin to see just how shaken she was. After the night's exertions, she was just too weary to argue with him.
For reasons she could not explain, Alex did not want to appear weak before Vin Tanner. Perhaps it was because he was always so damn abrasive to her and made no effort to hide his dislike. She didn't want to give him the satisfaction of seeing her so vulnerable. While she generally got along with most of the seven, her relationship with Vin was never friendly, it barely bordered on civil. With little or no provocation whatsoever, they seemed to get on each other's nerves. Alex could not understand the attrition, and she doubted Vin could either.
"You did fine." He took a step closer. Just one. "Ezra's alive 'cause of you."
Alex suddenly felt too exhausted to maintain this façade of strength and let out a weary sigh. "I could have killed him, Vin," she admitted, her voice breaking and the full torrent of her anxieties came spilling out for him to see. "If I had made one single mistake, I could have killed him."
Her confession surprised him and considering she operated on Ezra while they were on the run, on a buckboard, in the darkness no less, Vin thought she was a little hard on herself. Whatever
his feelings about her, her skill as a healer could not be faulted. Other than Nathan, the seven trusted no one else with their well being. If Ezra had fallen under the care of a sawbones, he would be dead by now. That she managed to keep him alive was a miracle in itself.
"But you didn't, you saved him. I reckon it wasn't easy cutting up someone you care about," he said quietly, and the jealousy remained on his tongue like a bitter aftertaste.
"That's just part of it," Alex shrugged, knowing her feelings for Ezra played only a small part in how she felt right now. "I've never done that kind of surgery before. I've seen it others do it, but like Nathan, I've never performed it myself."
Shocked to hear that, Vin admired Alex even more for it. It was a hell of a thing to do the first time around, in such difficult circumstances. "Why didn't you say something?"
The surprising sympathy in his voice prompted her to continue speaking. "Because it wouldn't have made any difference. Ezra needed the surgery, he would have died otherwise."
Turning away from him, she faced the creek, taking in the night air and the sound of owls and crickets trying to lay claim to the silence. "I know I sound like I know what I'm doing, but I really don't. I came out here to practice medicine because no hospital would hire a woman, especially one who isn't white. I have the degree, the training but not the experience. I'm just feeling my way around."
Facing him again, she showed him her trembling hands with a self-deprecating laugh. "Look at me, I can't even stop shaking."
Vin Tanner then did something very unexpected.
He took both her hands in his. Until that moment, Alex had not paid much attention to how close he was standing before her, but she knew it now. Her breath caught at the contact, and suddenly, she became aware of him in a way she hadn't before. Taken entirely by surprise, Alex was caught by the intensity of his cobalt coloured eyes and recalled thinking how nice they were when Alex first saw him. Now she could see nothing else as she took in his scent, a mixture of oilskin, soap and dust. His skin felt pleasantly warm in contrast with the fresh night air.
There was nothing but innocence in his touch as his fingers stroked her own gently, the way one would soothe a frightened animal, yet it made her stomach flutter and caused her heart to start beating fast like it just remembered how.
"That any better?" Vin asked quietly in that too-soft voice of his, holding Alex's surprised gaze in his.
"Yes," Alex replied, and her voice came out like a breathy whisper. Hearing it made her snatch her hands back, and a surge of heat rushed to her cheeks in embarrassment. Yet Alex continued to be caught in his blue eyes, like a moth who suddenly discovered the power of the flame. What was this? She knew how she felt about Ezra, but with Vin's hands over hers, those feelings seemed very distant.
For this moment, it was just her and Vin, no one else.
"We should get back to the house," he suggested, choosing to ignore her retreat because he could see the confusion in her eyes.
"Yes, you're right. I need to check how Nathan's doing," Alex babbled, snapping out of whatever it was that just transpired between them. "Let's do that."
Without saying another word, she brushed past him, heading towards the light of Nettie's hearth in the distance. Alex did not look back when she left Vin behind, wishing this sensation in her chest would go away because tonight, he had become a revelation.*****
Darien answered all their questions but one.
When the man from the future provided them with explanations about the machine trying to kill Chris, Buck was expecting to have his own questions answered. Specifically, why did they look so similar? Yet Darien avoided that particular explanation, and as they rode towards Nettie's place, he noted Mr Lambert seemed to be staying away.
During the ride, each one of them was preoccupied with silent thoughts of their own. Buck glanced at Chris and saw the man in black riding away from the main group, not even looking at Mary. Buck suspected Chris was coming to grips with the news he would be a father come spring. Even JD seemed at a loss for words and Buck could hardly blame him. Darien's story could challenge even the most open-minded, and JD was a kid who knew barely anything about the world except what he learned from books.
Finally, when Buck's patience could wait no more, he nudged his horse Beavis towards the man, determined to have his answers.
Darien was unsurprised by Buck's approach. The question hung between them like a pregnant drop of water poised to fall. He couldn't blame Buck for wanting answers even though Darien had his suspicions. From the moment, Darien met Buck Wilmington face to face, he understood it was not just a case of mistaken identities. The similarities between them were too exact to be a coincidence, and reluctantly, Darien realised the cause might be genetic.
Whoever his parents were, Darien had become comfortable with the knowledge they had not wanted him. The surrogate who bore him was also lost to him but what he had of her was more substantial than what he knew of the two people whose genetic stuff gave him life. Lambert was the name of the surrogate because Darien never knew where he'd come from. Over the years, he'd made peace with this because he knew who he was, and it was enough.
But now, seeing Buck Wilmington changed that. Just as John Connor was a direct descendant of Chris Larabee and Mary Travis, Darien Lambert suspected Buck and he might share the same lineage. With the Wilmington family line as a place to start, it became possible for Darien to trace the man's descendants to Darien's own origins. It was not lost on him that he might discover his own roots by this quest through time.
"It must be something." Buck Wilmington stated as he and his horse Beavis came alongside Darien.
"What?" Darien looked at him and felt another chill of uneasiness seeing his own eyes on Buck's face.
"Coming through time," Buck replied before facing the darkness in the plains beyond. The country was quiet at night except for the occasional howl of coyotes and the hooting of owls.
"Not really. Most of the time, it gives me a headache and a need to throw up."
"Kinda like a hard nights drinking," Buck said sympathetically, knowing how it felt after a hangover and decided he would never again complain it was only the drink that caused it.
"Do you have time to drink?" Darien smiled. "You must be popular with the ladies. I must have seen a dozen of them smiling at me on my way to the saloon."
Buck laughed and then returned with a grin of mischief. "It's my animal magnetism. Come on now, you can't tell me it ain't the same where you come from?"
"I'm not much of a ladies man," Darien admitted and realised with surprise it was mostly true. His travels had him zigzagging from one place to another, with little time to pause and make attachments. There were women here and there, but the longing for Elyssa hadn't quite faded away. "I've got too much work to do."
This clearly troubled Buck. "Man can never have that much work. Don't tell me there ain't vacations up there in the future."
"I lost someone a long time ago," Darien admitted, feeling slightly defensive that Buck's words were getting under his skin.
"I see." Buck nodded in understanding. He knew what that was like, but withdrawing away from everyone, and everything was no answer. After Sarah and Adam, Buck saw Chris drag himself into an abyss and remained there for so long he didn't believe Chris would ever escape its darkness, even with Mary in his life. Grief had a way of changing people so irrefutably it was impossible to remember what life was before it.
"Sorry, didn't mean to pry."
"It's okay," Darien replied, deciding the need to know was starting to affect him too. "Look, we both know our resemblance to each other is not just a coincidence. So let's just stop the pretext of getting friendly and find out for certain."
"What is it about me that scares the hell out of you?"
Darien looked at him sharply. "I'm not scared of anything."
"Yes, you are." Buck stared at him hard. "You're damn afraid of finding out we could be related. Why is that?"
"Look, you want to do it or not?" He snapped, hating it the man was absolutely correct. After years of wondering, he was still reeling from the fact the opportunity to know the truth was suddenly dropped into his lap, typically after he'd made peace with not knowing.
"This," Darien reached into his coat and produced Selma. "Selma, can you do a DNA scan?"
"Yes, Captain," Selma answered automatically.
"Damn thing talks?" Buck jumped in his saddle, a little startled. "What is it?"
"Think of it as a library that talks." Darien's stomach was quickly twisting into knots at the possibility of what Selma would find.
Selma was cautious about speaking in Buck's presence. Darien's directive over the years was specific. He preferred her silence when in the company of others, for she was too difficult to explain. Unfortunately, in this time period, none of those rules applied.
"I shall need to make personal contact, Captain."
"Captain?" Buck inquired wanting to know everything about Darien Lambert. Even if Darien didn't want to admit it, Buck knew without hesitation, this carbon copy was family. He could not understand why the prospect was so daunting to this man of the future when he seemed so accepting of everything else.
"Captain of Earth Police," Darien answered before handing Selma to Buck. "You need to hold this."
Buck examined the tiny mainframe with visible curiosity, taking note of its smooth texture and the meaningless words scrawled against it. "Did you call it Selma?"
"Yeah, just makes it easier to talk to." He explained as best as he could without getting into the whole subject of user-friendly computer interface.
Buck nodded, not really understanding but felt a slight tingle in his finger. If he didn't know better, he'd say it was a sting, but it didn't quite hurt enough for that.
"I have completed the scan, Captain," Selma spoke much to Buck's delight. He put his ear close to it as if that would explain how he could hear it speaking. "The scan of mitochondrial DNA is a 100 percent match. You are a direct descendant of the subject Buck Wilmington."
Buck saw the colour evaporate from Darien's face even in the moonlight. Without another word, Darien dug his heels into the side of his mount and rode off into the darkness. Buck heard the hoofbeat come to a stop some distance ahead and knew Darien was keeping them in sight, even if he wished to be alone.
"Now, I ought to be insulted," Buck replied, still holding Selma in his hand.
"Do not take offence Mr Wilmington," Selma spoke up suddenly much to Buck's surprise.
"You can talk in real sentences?" Buck exclaimed in mild surprise, marvelling at the piece of twenty-second-century technology in his hands. He could understand what Darien meant when he stated that it was easier to speak to it. The calm, elegant, feminine voice was just the kind of interface that Buck Wilmington was most comfortable with.
"I can speak in real sentences in a dozen languages," Selma explained almost boasting.
"What's wrong with him?" Buck gestured in the direction Darien had gone and realised this thing had no eyes to see where he was pointing at. In truth, he felt a little silly talking to a piece of card and did not expect any satisfactory answer.
"The Captain is somewhat overwhelmed, I would imagine."
"By what? He must have known it was likely we were kin. Hell, after that story he told Chris, it made perfect sense to me."
"The Captain has no data regarding his birth parents, Mr Wilmington," Selma answered in defence of her human. "He never knew his parents."
"He's an orphan?" Buck exclaimed, starting to realise why this was so difficult for Darien Lambert.
"It is unknown whether his parents are dead or alive. They did not claim him after his birth, so he was listed as an orphan."
"Damn," Buck swore to himself realising what learning the truth meant to Darien. To Buck, it was little more than a curiosity, a preview of the future. It never occurred to Buck the matter would have far more profound implications for a man who travelled through time to save the lives of his nearest and dearest friends. "I guess he has a place to start looking now."
"That is affirmative. I can trace the genealogical records of your family tree until the twenty-second century. There is a high probability it will yield the name of his mother or father, from your side of the family, as it were."
"Really? You know who I'm going to marry?"
"Affirmative Mr Wilmington." Whether or not Buck knew it, his genetic match to Darien, allowed Selma to answer all his questions without restriction.
"According to the records, you will be married to an Inez Elena Recillos."
Buck straightened up on his horse and cast his eye at the sultry woman, sitting next to Mary on the wagon. A slow smile stole across his lips as he watched at the lovely Inez, offering comfort to her best friend. She noticed Buck looking her way and shook her head, once again giving him that look which told him she had no idea what to do with him. A future with Inez was something Buck would look forward to.
Eventually. There were still a lot of women around to get to know first…
"Want some advice?" Buck said, still staring into the night, trying to decide if he ought to approach Darien or not.
"I am subject to any useful information." She said, sounding somewhat annoyed he should even have the audacity to ask. Suddenly, the notion that machines could run themselves in the future did not seem so outlandish to Buck after all.
"I wouldn't tell Darien who his folks might be unless he asks."
"It is what he wishes to know." Selma pointed out, perplexed by the advice.
"Maybe he does, but not now. He ain't ready for it, and you'll do more harm than good by telling him too soon."
The voice was silent for a few seconds, and Buck guessed whatever it was that passed for Selma's brain was carefully considering his advice. "I concur with your assessment."
Still, Buck had a feeling he'd just opened the Pandora's Box on Darien Lambert's life.*****
By the time they arrived at Nettie's, it was well into the night, and the group was exhausted. Chris, in particular, was mindful about Mary's condition and wanted her to rest while he and Darien decided what they would do next. According to Darien, the mechanical hunter would now shift its attention to Mary. Although the thought had not occurred to her yet, Chris knew the fastest way to draw Mary out of any hiding place was to threaten young Billy Travis.
Which meant the Terminator would soon be on its way to Eagle Bend where Billy was in residence with Judge Orin Travis and his wife, Evie. There was no need to tell Mary about this yet because it was almost a full day's ride to Eagle Bend and somehow Darien did not believe the Terminator was going to be able to ride there. However, that would not stop the mechanical man from boarding a train at Bitter Creek and ride the locomotive straight into the small city.
Despite their shock, after what they saw of the mechanical monster in the saloon, Vin and Nathan took the explanation about the Terminator and the future rather well. However, for Alex and Nettie's benefit, Chris opted to fabricate a story about dangerous outlaws gunning for the seven as the reason for their swift exodus from Four Corners.
If anything, it was Darien who was hardest to explain and eventually, he was passed off as a member of Buck's family who'd come into town today. While Alex seemed dubious, Nettie accepted it, and Chris suspected even if she didn't believe their story, would not probe unnecessarily if it wasn't required.
In the meantime, Darien and JD had ridden out with a wagon to collect some equipment he brought with him from the future to combat the Terminator. Since their own guns were next to useless as proven during the gun battle in the saloon, Chris was appreciative of any edge they could get.
JD was eager to accompany the time traveller, and Chris guessed this was mostly due to Darien's similarity in nature and resemblance to Buck. However, he did notice some estrangement between Darien and Buck. Earlier on, he saw their exchange and Chris wondered what could have rattled Darien enough for the man to take flight.
Chris, on the other hand, found his thoughts focussed on the reality he would be a father again. Despite the current situation and the target Mary had become, Chris was thrilled by the idea. He thought of Adam as a baby and remembered how it felt to hold him for the first time. The memory of holding something so small and tiny that was Sarah and him was the sweetest feeling in the whole world. He wanted to share all that with Mary and more.
Chris looked out the front window of Nettie's porch and saw Mary alone outside. She was staring into the moonlight, trying to hide the anxiousness in her face. Men always thought motherhood was a completely natural thing to women, that they craved it and cared for nothing else once it was upon them. Once he'd become a father and a husband, Chris learned better and in Mary's case, the fear of her life was going to change so radically from after what she'd built these last few years, must seem especially paralysing.
He stepped out onto the porch and saw her staring into the night, eyes fixed on a point only she could see. Mary only noticed his presence when he came up behind her and slipped his arms around her waist. Breathing in the scent of her hair, she softened against him as her hands squeezed the arms around her.
"You haven't said anything." She said softly.
"Looks to me like there was nothing left to say. We're gonna have a baby."
She broke away from his grip then, not altogether gently. "I'm going to have a baby! You've done your part."
Chris stared at her in nothing less than astonishment. After everything they meant to each other, he could not fathom her making a statement like that. It was the fear talking, Chris told himself quickly. He underestimated how overwhelmed she was and cursed himself for not having it out sooner than this. Letting the matter lie had only allowed a thousand anxieties to fester in her brain, making her crazy.
"That ain't how it's going to be. You know better than that."
"I don't know anything." She replied and started to cry. He took a step forward, and she backed away instinctively. "All I know is, at this moment, I am more afraid of you than anything else."
"Me?" Chris exclaimed dumbfounded and reminded himself to calm down, or his attempt at being the voice of reason was going to get shot down in a blaze of glory. "We got a mechanical monster out there hunting the both of us down like a pair of dogs, and I'm the one you're afraid of?"
She wiped the tears from her eyes and nodded. "Yes, you are."
Taking a deep breath, she tried to steady herself, uncertain if these fears were real or some hormonal response her body was having. She knew she had a tendency to be irrational at times like this.
"Do you know what it was like when Steven was gone? I knew nothing, not a damn thing. I had no idea how to balance the books, how to wrestle with Lucifer or anything! He let me work on the paper by writing for it, but everything else was his to run and rule. I loved him, but when he left me, I was not just alone, I was helpless!"
"Mary, you're not helpless anymore," Chris said, trying to understand. "Far from it. You're one of the most capable people I know."
"You're damn right, I am. It took time, and I had to sacrifice my son to do it, but I learned to take care of myself. For the first time in my life, I got to take charge of my fate, to let no one make the decisions for me. I don't want to go back to that! I need more than just being someone's wife."
Okay, now he understood and rubbed the bridge of his nose. Composing his thoughts, Chris looked up at her. "Mrs Travis, you are the most opinionated, goddamn stubborn woman in creation but you've kind of grown on me because of that. If you hadn't been that way, I would have shot you dead and moved on. I love you for what you are, I always have, but this isn't about the baby, is it?"
"What do you mean?" Mary stared back, suspicious. "What else could it be?"
Chris took a step closer to her, so she had to look up at him. "This is about why I still have to sneak out of your bed and still call you Mrs Travis when we're out in public. This is about getting married."
"I have no difficulty marrying you." She said stiffly, and Chris knew she was lying.
"Like hell, you don't." He countered, going on the offensive now. "Face it, Mrs Travis, you got a problem with commitment."
"I do not have a problem with commitment!" Mary shouted defiantly. "You're not exactly the catch of the day you know."
"I was good enough for the last two months. Good enough, as a matter of fact, to get you pregnant and be willing to marry you, even though you look like the one who's going to jump the stage and head out of town!"
So much for being calm, Chris thought.*****
"Hey, it is becoming somewhat ugly out there," Alex announced her concern while wrapping a support bandage around Josiah's shoulder. Despite the group's attempt not to eavesdrop, the volume of the conversation outside had risen to a level that made it impossible to ignore it. "Should someone go out there?"
In her present condition, Alex was mindful of Mary's welfare. She knew the widow already had many anxieties in her current state.
"Nah," Buck replied, wincing slightly as Nathan dabbed the cut over his eye with a solution that stung. "It's like alligators about to mate. How about it, Vin? Two bits say they go another two minutes?" Buck looked over his shoulder at the tracker.
Vin met Buck's gaze and smiled a little. "I call it at three."
"I say less than two," Inez added, looking up from her cup of coffee.
"That ain't exactly nice," Nathan said reproachfully. "Betting on your friends like that."
"What do you call it?" Buck looked at him sarcastically, knowing Nathan all too well.
The healer dabbed more solution onto the cut and muttered under his breath. "I say five minutes."
Alex rolled her eyes and exclaimed in exasperation. "You're all idiots."
"Yeah, but you love us," Buck winked at the doctor.
Josiah looked up at Alex with complete innocence, "I'm only involved because I have the pocket watch."*****
"I am not avoiding the issue!" Mary declared hotly not liking the truth Chris forced her to admit. "Just because I refuse to rush into marriage does not mean I have a problem with commitment!"
"Oh, really?" Chris returned her heated glare. "Prove it."
"Let's get married right now. Josiah is a preacher, he can do it. Hell everyone's here!"
This time, she was not squirming out of this. Chris understood her desire not to be rushed, and for two months, he respected it. Now, the issue was no longer about her reputation or his being accustomed to a woman in his life again. This was about a baby. His and hers. The child inside her deserved to have a name, and it was not going to be illegitimate if Chris Larabee had anything to do with it.
Mary looked at him as if he had gone mad. "Have you lost your mind? That thing is out there trying to kill us both, and you want me to organise a wedding?"
"Who said anything about a wedding? We both say I do, Josiah says we can, and that's the end of it. We could do it in two minutes, no fuss, no rice."
"Give me your gun. You're too dangerous to walk around armed."
"So is that a yes, Mrs Travis?" Chris ignored her sarcasm and pressed again because she had managed to avoid the question, as she'd been avoiding it ever since they started to share the same bed.
Mary fell silent, recognising the gauntlet thrown at her feet and knew there was no way to escape from picking it up. In a moment of clarity, Mary Travis realised if she said no to him again, it would be the biggest mistake of her life. Mary loved him. From the first moment she laid eyes on him, Mary had known this. Faced with this truth, she understood her fears had to do with letting go of the past and building something new with him, just like Darien portended.
"Alright, let's get married."
"Really?" He observed her, watching for any signs of weakness or anxiousness.
"Yes! What do you want? An editorial?"
"No." He shook his head and smiled faintly. "A yes will do for now. We'll get married as soon as this thing is over."
"Wait a minute! What happened to the no fuss, no rice?"
"Can't get married without a wedding," he winked.
This time Mary did not step away when he took her hand and pulled her gently towards him. Chris gave Mary a chaste kiss, and for tonight at least, everything was alright in their world.
All the Kings Horses...
The Terminator stared at itself in the mirror of the general store.
It was night now, and the store was left unattended for the evening. Beyond the glass windows of the premises, its audio sensors detected the voices outside. As it conducted the necessary maintenance on its appearance, the Terminator activated its internal recorder, keeping surveillance on the humans investigating the destruction in case there was useful information to be gleaned for its search for the secondary target.
The shotgun blast had ruined one side of its face. Beneath the blood and pulp of flesh, its metallic endoskeleton was clearly visible, and the Terminator knew the first order of business was to camouflage this injury. A hat would not hide its face well enough, and an eye patch would only conceal his eye and nothing else. Rummaging through the goods on sale, the Terminator soon found something that would suffice just as adequately. Unrolling the length of bandage, it began wrapping the material across the raw half of its face.
While it did this, the Terminator considered its next move. With the disappearance of the primary and secondary targets, it was necessary to widen the scope of its search. During the gunfight earlier, the Terminator scanned all the humans who attempted to defend the primary. Its memory banks contained information on the six men recorded as known associates of Christopher Larabee.
The Terminator kept its scans localised on geography, knowing there was a high probability Christopher Larabee would not return to his residence in anticipation of interception. A title deed recorded in Larabee’s name told the Terminator exactly where the land was situated. Nathan Jackson owned a medical infirmary, but once again, the probabilities were not in favour of either man fleeing to this location. The saloon from which the Terminator recently departed belonged to Ezra Standish in part ownership with a Maude Standish, who had no fixed address at this point in history.
Two possibilities had very high probabilities of success. One was a religious establishment frequented by Josiah Sanchez, one of Larabee’s associates and was known to be a practitioner of arcane beliefs. More promising was the data regarding the youngest member of the group, JD Dunne. He would take a wife who presently resided in this community. The bride to be was located on a small farming property several kilometres from the Terminator’s present location.
The Terminator examined itself in the mirror once it swathed the exposed metal under layers of bandage, revealing no signs of its endoskeleton. Scanning the premises, the cyborg saw a hat stacked neatly with others on a shelf and went towards it. Placing the headgear over its brow, the cyborg examined itself once more to ensure it resembled a human once again.
Discarding its soiled clothes, now soaked in blood, they were replaced with better fitting garments from the stock in the establishment. It noted the weapons trapped in place by a thick chain holding them against a rack. Encircling its titanium digits around the steel, the Terminator removed the links of metal with one sharp yank. It snapped like kindling, and the freed chain rattled noisily in its descent to the wooden floor. Surveying the selection, the Terminator took the most efficient weapons in the limited arsenal.
Once the Terminator was satisfied it had all the tools necessary to complete the mission objective, it departed just as unnoticed into the night to continue the hunt.*****
There were times when Mary hated being a woman because the conventions of society demanded she accepted things no matter how much she disliked it.
The draconian rules of behaviour women were meant to follow, but men flaunted without a care in the world. She detested the prejudices, the constant upkeep of reputation, and the physical danger a woman was often helpless to defend. Most of all, she hated the endless waiting while men rode off to face dangers she could not fathom, and she was required to wait patiently for their return.
This was one such moment.
As Chris prepared to make the long journey to Eagle Bend with the rest of the seven, Mary was forced to trail behind; unable to lend a hand while a mechanical monster went after her son. Chris was taking no chances with Billy’s life and was heading out shortly before dawn.
Orin and Evie Travis had to be warned about what was coming in their direction so they could escape while there was time. Mary wanted badly to go with Chris, but he would not consider the idea, let alone agree to it. As annoyed as Mary was by his refusal, she knew he was right. It was not just her own life that hung in the balance. There was also the life of the child inside her.
“You get riding to Bitter Creek as soon as it’s dawn. When we get Billy, we’ll make our next move.”
Mary did not like the idea of separating, but she understood the need. They had to make time to catch the Terminator, as Darien called it, and she would only slow them down.
“Alright,” she agreed as she saw the others waiting for Chris to mount his horse. Only Ezra was absent because he was in no condition to travel after the injuries he sustained at the monster’s hands.
When it was light, Mary, Alex, Inez, and Ezra would travel by wagon to Bitter Creek. None of them had any connection to the community, so if the Terminator was using only what information was available in the historical archives, it was likely the town would be ignored as a possible interception point.
“What is our next move?” She asked, hoping he had an answer.
“I’ll have it figured out by the time I come back.” He leaned forward to kiss her gently on the lips.
With Darien joining them, the group was still seven strong even without Ezra’s participation. Josiah was at the reins of Mary’s wagon with Darien riding shotgun since the time traveller was not terribly comfortable on a horse. The weapons he brought with him from the future lay nestled in the back tray of the wagon, awaiting use on the enemy.
Inez was saying her farewells to Buck, pretending she really didn’t care what happened to him even though Buck could see differently in her eyes. As she blew him a kiss, he thought of the children they would make together so Darien Lambert could be born. It was a sweet promise for the future.
Meanwhile, Vin Tanner received the obligatory caution from Nettie, instructing him to be careful. The tracker was grateful for the old woman even if he found it annoying she could read him so easily. It gave him some sense of satisfaction, knowing at least one woman would weep if anything happened to him.
Since their exchange by the creek, Vin noticed Alexandra Styles was keeping her distance. He suspected what occurred between them unsettled her, but he was not foolish enough to read any more into it than that.
Or so he thought.
Alex hadn’t intended to see him off, but after at the creek, she found she could think of little else. For most of the night, she replayed in her mind, their exchanges since her arrival in Four Corners, armed with the possibility his feelings for her might be entirely different than what she initially believed. When Vin touched her, Alex felt something inside her leap with excitement, as if it had been waiting for its time, and was finally here. Yet she had no idea what to do with this realisation.
What on Earth did he do to her?
“Take care of yourself, Vin.” Alex surprised him by coming up alongside his horse, trying not to show she cared when in truth, she really did. “I don’t want you for a patient any time soon.”
“I’ll try not to inconvenience you Doc.” He drawled and for a moment and saw she was looking at him intently. For a moment, everything he felt about her sparked in his blue eyes and Vin turned away, less something was said he couldn’t take back. Turning to join Chris, he realised she’d called him Vin for the first time.
Mary watched in silence as Chris dug his heels into his horse and started the group on its way. As always, he took the lead, his dark duster trailing in the wind as he rode off into the night. She stared after him until the cloud of dust left by the trail of horses pulling away into the darkness settled in place once more.
“They’ll be fine.” Inez squeezed her arm gently, knowing she needed support more than ever.
“God, I hope so.” Mary sighed. “I don’t think I’m ready to raise another child by myself.”
“It won’t come to that.” Alex approached them, offering her the reassurance Mary needed to hear right now.
“Come on now,” Nettie Wells broke into the conversation. “You ladies need some sleep.” The older woman gestured at them to come back into the house. “You got a long day ahead of you.”
To that, none of them could disagree.*****
Ezra Standish blinked.
Sunlight was pouring at him through an open window, and as he squinted into focus, he felt utterly awful. The sharp pain in his skull was unlike anything he had ever known. It was even worse than a hangover from drinking that god awful Red Eye the others were so fond of. He tried to reach for his head, but his arms felt heavy, forcing him to give up. There were vague images in his mind following the burst of horror that was his last conscious thought.
Closing his eyes, he shuddered as the memory of tightening fingers around his throat returned to him and sent a shiver of cold panic throughout his body. He remembered Chris warning the monster off and it not listening before he was struck with an agony so excruciating, it left a black hole inside Ezra’s mind.
The fear diminished upon the discovery he was not in a saloon and the view outside told him he was at Nettie Wells’ farm, some hours ride from Four Corners. Ezra tried to sit up but succeeded in only shifting slightly in his bed. It was then he noticed Alex. Her head lay against the mattress while the rest of her tried to sleep in the uncomfortable chair next to his bed. Ezra had no doubt she had been there all night.
He made his fingers cooperate enough to touch strands of long dark hair, luxuriating in its texture. It was the best evidence of his survival following the encounter with the demonic creature that nearly killed him. Alex nuzzled against his hand as he caressed her hair, letting out a soft sigh capable of tempting even the most celibate of men.
Sadly Ezra was in no condition to take such liberties in that regard even in the unlikely possibility the lady chose to accommodate him, which she did not. While Alex cared for him deeply, she conducted herself like any woman of good reputation. In any case, Ezra was in no particular hurry and enjoyed what he had with her at the pace she’d set.
In the meantime, he could still dream.
His touch stirred her into awakening and after another breathless sigh; Alex lifted her head and blinked groggily at him with heavy eyelids. It took a few moments for her to register where she was before she noticed his eyes on her.
“Good morning,” she smiled at him, the relief at his well being lit up her eyes like a thousand stars.
“How are you feeling?” She pushed a strand of tousled hair from her eyes as she started to sit up.
“I’ve been better,” Ezra responded and found it was not as easy to do. His voice was little more than a croak, and his throat felt so dry.
“Don’t move,” she warned and stood up to make a quick examination of the bandage over his forehead. Ezra took a breath of her scent as she leaned over. “Your skull was cracked open.”
“It was?” Ezra asked before the memory of a wooden beam came into view, before an explosion of pain. What happened in that saloon returned to him so sharply, he actually winced and fought the wave of nausea surfacing with the memory of that vise-like fingers encircling his throat.
That creature was trying to kill Chris!
“Chris,” he managed to say. “Did it get Chris?”
“No.” She shook her head, gently trying to settle him back into the pillows. She heard from Nathan how bravely Ezra stood up to Chris’s attacker. The enemy was only seconds away from killing the gunslinger when Ezra provided the timely interference allowing Chris to escape at a high cost to himself. “You gave Chris enough time to get away.”
“I am gratified to hear that,” Ezra groaned before resting back on the bed as she wished. “However, I wish I could say the same for myself.”
“You’ll live,” Alex replied, pouring him a cup of water from a pitcher from the table next to the bed. He had to be thirsty considering he had slept most of the night, and the freshwater would go some way to soothing the throat the drugs would have left parched.
“I’ll trust you on that.” He grimaced, lying back in his pillows again after taking a sip of water. The fluid felt icy in his throat but did appease some of the irritation he felt, though not much. However, Ezra was grateful when he noticed there were no other injuries anywhere else on his body. He wriggled his toes and was pleased to know everything was working if lacking its usual vigour.
“Am I mistaken or are we currently at Nettie Well’s humble abode?”
“The man who attacked you is still out there. Chris and the others thought we should stay out of his way until they figured out his next move.”
Ezra remembered the glowing red eyes and the steel plate under the creature’s skin and realised Chris omitted a few things out in his account of their experiences to Alex. She looked oblivious to the true nature of the beast. At the moment, Ezra had no wish to enlighten her. Part of him was still questioning what he saw and hoped it was a product of an over-imaginative mind in his unconscious state. Until he spoke to the others and confirmed what he’d seen, Ezra was not about to enlighten her on what inflicted this brutality upon him.
“So where are the others?”
“They had to leave. They think he’s going to go after Billy Travis to draw Chris out.”
“That would do it,” Ezra admitted ruefully. Considering the nature of Chris’s relationship with the boy’s mother, it was a wise move. Anyone who wanted to find Chris Larabee’s weakness need not look any further than the young widow and her son. “So are we to enjoy Mrs Wells’s hospitality until they return?”
“Afraid not,” she shook her head. “Chris wants us in Bitter Creek as soon as possible.”
Alex glanced at the sunshine outside and heard the sounds of the others, moving about beyond the room. Slowly, the house came alive with the sounds of morning.
“As a matter of fact,” she rose to her feet and stretched her tired muscles from its cramped position the night before. “I do believe we ought to get going soon.”
Even though she was trying hard not to show it, Ezra could see the depth of her concern at his welfare. He had no doubt she spent most of the night at his side, keeping a vigil on his life, which she probably saved. It made Ezra marvel in wonder at what he did to earn such affection in one as centred and sometimes glacial as Alex Styles. He was not sure he deserved it.
Ezra had no time to ponder that question when he heard a loud crash startling them both. Alex jumped to her feet immediately, and Ezra surprised himself by managing to sit up. Alex was too distracted by the noise to stop him as he staggered out of bed, trying to join Alex at the door as she went to find out what was happening.
Alex shot him a look as he stood up, her expression horrified. “Get back in bed! You are in no condition to be on your feet!”
Just standing up almost floored Ezra but the disturbance beyond forced him to move. His head throbbed with pain with each step he took as if his brain was screaming out in protest for his misbehaviour. At least the pain provided him with clarity as he saw Alex starting to open the door.
“Wait!” He hissed and closed the distance, bracing himself against the doorway when he reached her and shoved her aside. Leaning forward, Ezra peered through the crack of the door to see what was happening.
Outside, he saw the monster. It was dressed differently with bandages concealing its face, but Ezra knew without a doubt it was the same thing he faced the night before. Nettie Wells was lying against the floor, a terrible gash running across her forehead. The front door had been flung open, having been broken through and was barely hanging on by its hinges. The wooden floor was covered with glass and wood splinters. Casey was screaming, trying to run past the monster to reach her aunt. She was almost hysterical from fright.
Ezra closed the door and turned back to Alex.
“Get to the window,” he struggled to speak, closing his eyes as he tried to focus, tried to think clearly through the miasma of pain.
“Ezra, I’m not leaving you.” Alex stared at him incredulously. Last night this man’s brains were exposed to the elements, the only reason he was not doubled over in pain was that she’d administered enough morphine to help him cope with it.
“Trust me,” he said weakly. “I do not intend on staying, but you need to get the wagon so we can leave.”
“Mary and Inez are here as well!” She hissed exasperated, trying not to let fear best her but Ezra had no idea the two women were with them since he was unconscious throughout the entire trip here.
“Damn.” He cursed, having no desire to face the demon again but knowing now he had no choice. He just hoped that this time he would live to tell the tale.*****
The Terminator caught Casey before she could reach Nettie. The young woman could think of nothing but the blood running down aunt’s face and had no idea of what had her so firmly in his grip. She knew it was a man, but somehow it was not. She had no way of articulating the feeling. The Terminator picked her up under the chin with his powerful arms, leaving Casey dangling like a fish on a hook as she struggled above the floor.
The cyborg examined the young woman and immediately determined she was not Mary Travis. This was a female in late adolescence, and he was searching for an adult woman. Upon realising, Casey was not who he sought, he tossed the girl aside like a rag doll. Fortunately, Casey knew how to land being tomboy, although until now, she never dreamed it could be so useful. Dropping awkwardly on the floor but not enough to cause herself an injury, Casey Wells scrambled to Aunt Nettie’s side.
She knew how to tell when an animal was dead. She had gone fishing with JD enough times to realise the look of something dying, and to her complete relief, Casey’s quick examination of Nettie revealed her aunt was still in the land of the living. The intruder was oblivious to her now as he moved deeper into the house and Casey took advantage of his indifference to heave Nettie to her feet. She was strong, performing the chores on the farm customarily undertaken by a man.
Staggering out the broken remains of the front door, Casey was aware that something terrible was in pursuit of her friends and the safest thing for her to do at the moment was to get out of his way. Nettie was starting to come around as they hurried down the front steps.
“Casey!” Alex exclaimed as she came around from the other side of the house after making her hasty exit through the window. She fought the urge to go back after Ezra but knew he would not appreciate her return. Right now, he needed her to bring the wagon so they could all get out of here alive.
“Doctor Styles,” Casey wailed. “I think Aunt Nettie’s hurt real bad.” The girl said panic-stricken as Alex helped her with the injured older woman. The cut on Nettie’s forehead was deep and bled profusely, as all wounds on the head tended to do, but Alex knew it was superficial. If Nettie was suffering anything, it was most likely a concussion.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Alex replied as they both moved towards the wagon.
“Miss Travis and Miss Inez are still in there!” Casey declared, and Alex shared her fear for their lives. She felt similar distress for Ezra as well, who was injured but would undoubtedly feel it necessary to get the ladies to safety first despite the risk to himself. Fighting her fear, Alex knew the best way to help him, was to get the wagon as he had asked.*****
“Inez, I am not going without you!” Mary insisted in dismay as Inez took point at the door to the guest room they were sharing.
“I don’t have time to argue with you! “You know what depends on you staying alive! Get going!”
Mary Travis was at a loss over what to do. The window lay before her as her only means of escape. Inez barricaded the door to the room with a dresser, but it was evident after what the Terminator did to enter the house, no barrier was going to be quite enough to keep it out. Chris insisted they kept a gun nearby just in case of trouble, but he could not have possibly suspected the Terminator would track them down here.
Mary knew Inez was right, but she could not stomach the thought of leaving her best friend to face the creature who was slamming so hard against the door, the dresser in front of it skidded backward several inches.
“I’ll be right behind you!” Inez promised, pushing the dresser back again, even though it was a futile hope at best. “Take Chaucer in the corral up there and get going!” Inez ordered again, her eyes pleading with Mary to obey.
Mary could see Ezra’s chestnut gelding and knew she had no choice. “You’re the best friend I ever had!” Mary cried out as she hurried towards the opening and climbed through.
“Stop saying that in the past tense!” Inez shouted back just before a final jolt against the door sent the dresser crashing forward. Inez stumbled back in shock while Mary practically fell out the window from the powerful quake throughout the room. No sooner than the furniture toppled over, a fist smashed through the wooden door. Inez was transfixed in a moment of horror as she saw him rip through the planks as if they were paper. It was only when he was halfway through the door she raised the gun in her hand and squeezed off a series of shots.
They had little or no effect on the Terminator as it entered the room and took note of the open window. The human before it was of the right age but not the correct racial type. Mary Travis was Caucasian, and this female was Latino. The six bullets escaped the chamber of the weapon and struck it across the chest at point-blank range. It quickly estimated the female would not pose much of a threat. It struck her in a backhanded blow that sent her sprawling against the floor.
The strike was so powerful Inez felt all the wind knocked out of her as her face flared in pain. She lifted her head and saw the Terminator take a step forward. Inez crossed herself, knowing with absolute certainty that when he reached her; she was going to die.
“Sir, your manners with the ladies are absolutely appalling.” Ezra Standish’s weak voice suddenly spoke from the door. He entered through the opening made by the Terminator. He was standing before the mechanical monster holding Nettie’s double-barrel shotgun and the one belonging to Josiah, obviously left behind for the ladies. The Terminator turned around, disregarding Inez now that a more formidable threat had arrived.
This time, Ezra did not wait until it got close enough. He fired both weapons in rapid succession, each blast from the shotgun forcing the Terminator backwards, towards the open window. The pain was unbelievable, but Ezra forced himself to ignore it. Each blast roared as loudly in his head as it did in reality. Icicles of pain stabbed at him but Ezra ignored it, using the agony to maintain focus, telling himself if he faltered they would all die.
Ezra kept firing until spent cartridges were flying in all directions. The Terminator staggered backwards, the force of the blasts keeping it off balance. Finally, as it neared the window, Ezra aimed both barrels side by side and fired together. The recoil drove Ezra to his knees, but it had the desired effect. The Terminator went crashing through the window into the greenery outside.
With that effort, Ezra collapsed, the guns falling from his grip.
“EZRA!” Inez hurried to him, horrified by his state. The bandage across his forehead was stained with a growing spot of blood. She had been dazed, but the shotgun fire brought her back to her senses with surprising speed.
“Come on Senor,” Inez helped him to her feet as her eyes darted back and forth anxiously from the open window and Ezra. “You have done enough.”
Barely conscious, Ezra whispered. “Not nearly.”
Using all the strength she could muster, Inez dragged him through the house towards the front door. Discarding the guns because there was no way she could carry them and him, she had no idea how long it would take for the Terminator to recover. It didn’t matter, she had no intention of being here when it did.
“Ezra! Inez!” Alex cried from behind the reins of the wagon. She was coming from the direction of the barn where it and the horses were kept. Forcing it to a stop, Alex shouted at Casey. “Help them!”
Casey jumped off the wagon where she had been tending to Nettie and hurried to Inez, helping the bartender support Ezra’s weight as they dragged him to the buckboard. No sooner than he’d tumbled against the wooden tray, he lapsed into unconsciousness. Inez suspected he would not be performing last-minute rescues any time soon.
“Where’s Mary?” Alex demanded searching the area for the blond woman.
As she asked the question, she was answered by the neighing of another horse, galloping into view. Needing no more prompt than that, Alex snapped the reins and got the wagon moving. Alex’s eyes widened at the sight of the Terminator, making his appearance once more. It ran across the dirt ground effortlessly, attempting to prevent them from leaving until all of a sudden, it stopped and took careful aim.
“Mary, watch out!” Inez shouted the warning too late.
The bullet caught Chaucer in the rump, but it was enough to halt the animal in full stride. It kicked its hind legs backward in pain, propelling Mary out of the saddle with no effort whatsoever. Inez’s heart stopped beating when she heard the terrible crunch of bone as Mary landed on the dirt. For a second that might as well have been hours, no one could speak until they saw the Terminator advancing, and then time sped up.
“Stop!” Inez shouted. Both she and Casey were out of the wagon before the horse had even come to a full stop. Heart pounding, Inez was running full stride as she sprinted towards her friend who was sprawled across the dirt path. Skidding to her knees, ignoring the gravel scraping her flesh, Inez rolled Mary over and saw she was out cold.
“Oh my God,” Casey said horrified because neither of them could tell if Mary was still breathing.
“Come on,” Inez wasted no time helping Mary up. Even as she and Casey lifted the blond woman to her feet, she could see the Terminator coming up the path, running at full speed. Quickly, they hauled the woman to the wagon, arms straining in pain because Mary was almost a dead weight. They scrambled onto the buckboard when the Terminator was only a few feet away. It raised its gun to fire again.
“GO! ALEX! GO!”
Inez uttered a short scream as she saw the Terminator lower its weapon, choosing a different tactic instead. It broke into a sprint, giving itself enough momentum to leap forward. It latched onto the back rail of the wagon, trying to climb up. Casey was screaming, trying to pull Mary out of the Terminator’s reach.
Inez looked around frantically, searching for a weapon because she had lost her gun, and the shotguns were back in Nettie’s home. There was a shovel lying within reach and Inez grabbed it. Wasting no time, she swung at the Terminator’s fingers. Whether or not the thing felt pain was a mystery, but Inez did not stop striking until the wood itself splintered, and the Terminator was tumbling away from the departing wagon.
Inez sunk to her knees, releasing an exhausted sigh as she sat where she was for a moment, allowing the adrenaline to subside.
“Is everyone alright back there?” Alex called out as she continued snapping the reins, forcing the horse to move faster, hoping to widen the distance between them and their assailant.
It was Inez, who was staring at the unconscious bodies of Nettie Wells, Ezra Standish and Mary Travis, that answered through barely concealed tears.
“No, Alex,” she said softly, “everyone is almost definitely not alright.”
The Fate We Make
It was when they stopped for a break after riding for hours Darien felt the slow vibration of Selma's mechanism inside his coat pocket.
At the time, Darien was engaged in an interesting discussion with the preacher Josiah. Darien found Josiah to be an extremely learned and well-travelled man whose insights were fascinating. While Darien didn't give the man specifics, they were able to converse about the state of religion in the twentieth century.
Upon feeling that familiar hum, Darien excused himself and stepped away from the group, who were grateful to be stretching their legs after hours in the saddle. As he strode away from them, he admired the green gold plains and the mountains in the distance. Despite the circumstances of his arrival here, Darien confessed he was enjoying the unspoiled view of America before the stink of gasoline propelled vehicles, and big developers put condominiums and theme parks in the wide-open spaces where nothing should be.
"What is it Selma?" Darien asked, wondering why she was breaking radio silence. While these men were aware of her existence, he was not about to flaunt the technology in their faces. As much as they might have accepted his story about the Terminator, he suspected they were uneasy about it, and he wanted to limit their exposure to the future as much as possible.
"Captain, I searched through my data banks upon learning Mary Travis is pregnant, and I have encountered some conflicting information."
"What's there to be conflicted about?" Darien shrugged, seeing nothing unusual about that. With the ripple and the inefficiency of records in this era, it was natural some facts didn't accurately align. "Skynet made a mistake, it sent the Terminator back a little later than it should have. Doesn't change the fact that a child is still at risk."
Selma didn't answer right away, but the pause was telling. Selma was programmed to mimic human behaviour, and such nuances were added to her speech when she was about to present him with news he wasn't going to like.
"Stop giving me radio silence Selma. What have you found?"
"No child was born to Chris Larabee and Mary Travis during this period. The children who become Kyle Reese's ancestors are not scheduled to be born for some time yet."
"But she's pregnant!" Darien exclaimed and quickly silenced himself because out here, voices carried, and he didn't want Chris to be privy to what he and Selma were discussing.
"I am aware of the situation, Captain, but as I said, the information is very clear on this point. Chris Larabee and Mary Travis will marry soon enough, but not because of any child."
"That would mean…." The words died in his mouth as the full implications of what Selma was attempting to tell him as sympathetically as the machine was able, dawned on him. Darien glanced in the direction of Chris and his friends, feeling a wave of sympathy for the doom Selma was implying.
"Do we know how?"
"Not currently I'm afraid Captain." Selma offered sombrely. "As you indicated earlier, with the timeline in such a state of corruption, exact details are difficult to locate. It could be happening right now at this moment, or even months away. There is a seven-month margin of error."
The Terminator's arrival coinciding with Mary Travis's pregnancy was too much of a coincidence for Darien to accept. What if the Terminator was the cause of the child being lost?
"Selma," he said after a few minutes with such dark thoughts, "is there any way for the Terminator to know where Mary is at this moment?"
"I am unable to provide you with a conclusive answer. I do not understand its programming parameters. If the Terminator can conduct interrogations, then it could discover Mr Dunne's affiliation with the girl Cassandra Wells. However, if I am to understand what Sarah Connor reported about the cyborg's behaviour as being accurate, then I doubt it would use interrogation as a matter of information retrieval."
Darien was not so optimistic. In fact, that bad feeling was now reaching apogee. "What about Cassandra Wells? Is there anything about her on record that might give away her relationship with JD Dunne?"
"I shall conduct a search.” After a few moments, she spoke again. "Captain, the archival files on JD Dunne indicate he remains in Four Corners permanently as its law enforcement officer. It also mentions his wife Cassandra Wells, is a resident of Four Corners."
"Which the Terminator will undoubtedly be aware of as well!"
Darien cursed. It never occurred to him until now to consider the future relationships that might provide the Terminator with clues to conduct its hunt. As if he were splashed with cold water, Darien knew the Terminator was not on its way to Eagle Bend.*****
Casey had never ridden so fast in her life or so far on her own, but the young woman knew she needed to reach JD and the others after what took place this morning. At Alex's behest, they left the farm and headed to the Indian village where both Nathan and Alex occasionally provided medical treatment to the locals. Thanks to the seven's friendship with Chano and Kojay, Alex was confident the chief would give them refuge while she and Inez tended to their injured number.
With Chanu away from the village, it was up to Casey to make the trip. Once the decision was made, Kojay providing her with a horse. As the best rider in the group, Casey would get to the men faster since Inez was needed to stay behind and help Alex with Mary, Ezra and Aunt Nettie.
As the palomino mare galloped across the plains as if she were sailing over the expanse of golden grass, Casey kept worries of Aunt Nettie out of her mind. Even though Doctor Styles assured Casey her aunt was suffering a mild concussion and would merely require rest, Casey still shuddered seeing the blood gushing from that terrible wound on Nettie's head. It infuriated her knowing she was helpless to do anything while the intruder did its worst.
Thank God Ezra managed to rescue Inez before it was too late. Even in his weakened state, he'd got to his feet long enough to help. She always thought little of the gambler, despite JD feeling otherwise. Ever since he came with the seven to protect the farm and then claimed menial work was not for him, Casey made up her mind he was nothing more than an insipid city dweller. Now she knew why JD admired him so much.
It was Mary who was hurt the worst. The fall she'd taken was nasty enough, and it was a miracle she didn't break her neck. Casey knew of better riders than Mary suffering similar dismounts with tragic results. Mary was unconscious throughout the journey to the village, with Alex surrendering the reins to Casey so the doctor could examine her. Listening in on the conversation between Inez and Alex, Casey realized Mary's condition was a great deal worse than previously thought.
Casey felt a chill recalling how coldly the intruder behaved when he dangled her over the ground. Even now, she ached from the bruises left by his powerful fingers. He threw her away as if she were nothing, not even worthy of a bullet. It frightened her to think that JD might have to face such a man with the others.
And face it they would, after what he'd done to Mary.
"Chris, we have a problem."
When Darien ran to the campsite where Chris and his companions were in the middle of a quick meal, his expression of worry immediately put the gunslinger on guard. Chris got to his feet quickly, followed by the others as Darien prepared to deliver his news.
"What sort of problem?"
"I'm sorry," Darien apologized, wondering if words would ever be enough. "It never occurred to me."
"What?" Chris demanded, striding up to him, his hands clenched into fists to brace himself for what was coming.
"The Terminator may track Mary back to Nettie's."
Not wanting to disclose any more of the future than necessary, he knew Chris would need a better explanation than just that blanket statement. Leaning over to Chris, Darien whispered quietly in the gunslinger's ear at how JD's future history might provide the Terminator with a clue to Mary's whereabouts. It was information JD did not need to know.
Chris stiffened upon hearing it and without another word, bolted towards his horse.
"Let's go!" Vin roused the others when he saw the blood drain out of Chris's face as the man ran past.
"Wait a minute," Darien spoke up. "I think some of us should keep going to Eagle Bend because Billy still has to be protected."
"Right," Buck agreed. "Someone's got to tell the judge what's going on."
"Alright," Vin thought quickly because they usually looked to the young man for guidance whenever Chris was not around. Vin himself could not understand it, and would have been mildly surprised by their answer had he chose to ask. "Buck, you, Josiah, Nathan and JD keep going to Eagle Bend. Take the wagon with you."
"I'm coming with you!" JD protested, full of worry for Casey even though he was not voicing it. In truth, he did not have to. They all knew his feelings for the young woman, but JD was young and impulsive. While Vin could sympathize because he inadvertently thought about Alex, He knew JD was not the right company to be around Chris at this moment.
"No, you're not," Vin said firmly. "We don't rightly know what's going on out there. It may be nothing, and if it is, then that monster is still on its way to Eagle Bend, and Buck and the others will need all the help they can get. I swear, we'll send word as soon as we know."
"But…" JD protested until Buck settled an arm on the boy's shoulder.
"It'll be okay kid," Buck said kindly, "they'll make sure Casey is safe."
Vin nodded at JD in confirmation of this fact, and finally, JD gave in. Although he was young, JD had a good head on his shoulders, enough to know what was the right thing to do.
"Okay Vin, I'll go with them."
"Good," Vin smiled in approval at JD. "Darien and I will go after Chris." He glanced over his shoulder and knew Chris was already gone. The best he and Darien could hope to do was keep up because they were certainly not going to slow him down.
"Vin." Buck closed the distance between them, gesturing the younger man away from the others for a moment. Buck remembered how Chris was after Sarah and Adam died. Chris had withdrawn into a dark abyss and never really emerged from it. If he were to lose Mary and their unborn child, there was no telling what Chris could do in his grief.
"If the worst has happened, be careful."
"I hear you." Vin nodded understanding all too well.
Chris Larabee, insane with grief, was like a rabid dog. When Chris came across news of his family's murderer for the first time in three years, it brought out a side to him that put the fear of God into all of his friends. During that period, Chris could barely be reasoned with. If something happened to Mary, there was no telling whether the scales would still balance.*****
Even after all these years, Chris Larabee remembered that night as if it happened yesterday.
He often wished he was spared that cruelty, but the passage of time did not lessen the clarity of the memory, if anything, it strengthened it. Sometimes, it was so overpowering, it eclipsed the images of Sarah and Adam. Even now, it was hard for Chris to imagine their faces in his mind. The pictures of them were destroyed in the fire. There were nights where he simply sat and tried to recall what they looked like, before drinking himself into a stupor when he couldn't.
He didn't even remember why he and Buck had gone to Mexico, but Chris had not been back since. Chris could not stomach crossing south of the border after that day. What awaited him at home after a night spent in that forgotten Mexican town destroyed him.
Chris was aware of nothing as his horse galloped through the trees, not stopping until he reached the black spot where his house stood, a burning ruin of charred wood and glass. He'd gotten off his horse and was driven to his knees. Buck spoke, but Chris couldn't hear anything beyond the realization somewhere in that pyre, was Sarah and Adam.
What remained of his wife and son when he finally found them was burned into his memory. For weeks after, he woke screaming, plagued with nightmares to this day had not completely vanished. Being in a permanent state of drunk was the only way he was able to cope. If Buck hadn't been there at his side, he would have probably killed himself. Their friendship never recovered from those dark days. Even now, it was a pale shadow of its former self.
The years after were filled with colourless, grey days, interspersed by moments of blood and violence, the pain smothered with more alcohol.
He didn't think there would be anything else beyond that. Not until he saw a woman with eyes like a dove, facing off a bunch of rowdy Texans hell-bent on hanging a black man for some imagined sin.
From the moment he saw her, he knew his heart was no longer his. She had taken it as quickly as Sarah had, and although Chris fought his feelings for Mary, he knew he lost the battle virtually from the very beginning. Keeping her at arm's length was the only way he knew how to stave off the feelings threatening to overwhelm him.
When he did finally submit to it, Chris marvelled at how easily she drove the demons away with the overwhelming might of her love for him. He basked in her, relished every moment they spent together. When he learned that she was carrying his child, he had not believed it was possible to find heaven twice in a lifetime.
Which was why Chris Larabee knew with absolute certainty if he lost Mary, he wouldn't give a fuck anymore.
The future could burn.
Casey had been riding for hours when she saw horses approaching her at a fast and furious pace. She was saddle sore, and she wished she could stop, especially since she was in unknown territory. Casey had never been this far away from Four Corners alone, and despite her youthful bravado, she was scared. For once she was grateful she was dressed in her work clothes. Dressing like a young man out on his own was less likely to get her into trouble than looking like a girl alone.
She'd taken the fastest route to Eagle Bend, as directed by Kojay, aware Vin would most likely do the same if they were trying to get to Eagle Bend fast. On sighting the riders, she debated what she ought to do. Tucked in her pants was Ezra's small derringer. It could only take two bullets, but there was extra ammunition in her coat pocket.
Casey was comforted by its presence, even though she couldn't imagine using the weapon against a person. She could shoot well enough, but she had never drawn a gun on anyone. She hoped she would not be forced to now.
But when the first rider came into view, sprinting across the meadow, Casey felt her heart swelling at the familiar black duster and gelding coming in her direction. It was Chris!
"Chris!" Casey cried out as he thundered across the field, looking as if he was not about to stop for anything.
Chris looked up, recognizing the voice if not the face.
Pulling up the reins of his horse, the animal neighed in protest as its head reared up sharply, its front legs lifting off the dirt. Scanning the terrain, Chris saw a grey palomino on approach and headed towards it. Within minutes, Chris realized it was Casey and felt his heart clench when he guessed the reason she was out here.
Casey climbed off the palomino once it stopped, never feeling happier to see the imposing man in black. Like most of the women in town, Chris intimidated her with his impressive manner and his sombre features, but in times of crisis, he was also a pillar of hope.
"Is Mary all right?" Chris strode towards her and grabbed her shoulders hard when she did not answer him quickly enough.
"She's hurt real bad!" Casey said unashamedly showing fear at his manner. She began to recount her tale in a flurry of chatter, telling Chris how the stranger appeared that morning and hurt Aunt Nettie. How their escape resulted in Mary being thrown off her horse.
Chris listened, his jaw tightening with every word that escaped Casey's trembling lips. She had seen Chris Larabee angry before, but not like this. His eyes became very hard, so hard it was difficult for Casey to meet his gaze. Coyotes had eyes like this before they tried to tear out your throat.
When she was done talking, Chris fell silent and stayed that way for almost a minute. Finally, he registered her presence again.
"Vin is going to be coming this way soon. Stay put until he gets here."
He left her and strode towards the gelding.
"Where are you going?" Casey called out, frightened of his manner, but more afraid to have him leave her here alone.
"I'm going to see Mary first," he said quietly. "Then I'm going to kill that fucking thing."*****
He arrived at the village a few hours later, his insides still twisted by the fact that Mary had been harmed. In his worst moments during the ride, Chris was gripped by the terrible fear he would arrive too late to see her before she slipped away from him, as he had been too late for Sarah and Adam.
The Indians were not surprised to see his arrival, but the look in his eyes as he dismounted the horse and walked through their village, made them give him a wide berth. They knew Chris Larabee as a friend of Vin Tanner, but they also knew him as the undisputed leader of the seven and one of the most fearsome men to carry a gun in the Territory. In either case, they were not about to delay his journey to his woman.
Kojay wasted no time showing him to the collection of huts currently providing shelter to Mary Travis and those who had come with her. Kojay gave him the news Mary was still among the living, and during the seconds it took for him to be shown the way to her, felt the knots inside of him loosen with relief.
As he approached the tent where Mary was, Inez was seated cross-legged in front of the crackling fire. Upon seeing him, there was no joy in her eyes, only sadness. Nearing her, he winced at the terrible bruise against her cheek. She had been struck so hard, the flesh beneath her eye was swollen and purple. Lowering himself next to her, he placed his hand against her cheek and realized it was damp with tears.
"That looks bad."
"It's nothing," Inez dismissed the injury as unimportant because it was
"Mary?" Chris was almost afraid to ask. He wanted to see Mary right away, but something in Inez's eyes made him pause.
"She broke her arm and several ribs," Inez replied with great difficulty as she glanced in the direction of the tent. "Alex says she has a concussion and is very lucky she didn't break her neck."
There was more to it than that. Inez wouldn't be this upset over broken bones. Chris could see the pain in her eyes was not just for Mary, it was for him too.
"I'm so sorry Chris." Inez reached for his arm and squeezed, trying not to break down again.
He felt his breath catch in his throat as the sense of loss overtook him. Images flashed in his mind, tiny fingers enclosing his fingertips, a toothless smile and a soft gurgle of laughter. Precious moments withered in the making because their child was dead. Chris forced the pain away because he had to be strong. He had to be strong because if he was suffering like this, then Mary's anguish was a thousand times worse.
"She's in there." Inez gestured to the closed tent flap.
She need not have told him, he could hear Mary's tears through it.
Mary was lying on her side, stripped down to her undergarments, partially covered with a blanket. Her arm was wrapped in an uncomfortable-looking splint of wood and bandages, and he could see the discolouration along the forearm. The signs of her fall were marked across her skin in scrapes and ugly bruises.
Seeing her this way, filled Chris with fury but he reined it in for now.
Mary was lying on her uninjured side because he could see under the lace of her camisole, the rough material of the bandages Alex taped around her broken ribs. Judging by how much of her was wrapped up, Chris estimated a break of at least three of four bones along the rib cage.
It could have been worse, he realized. Mary could have been killed.
Mary was curled up into a ball, her knees pulled up to her chest. She looked very much like a child. Her gold hair was splayed across her face appearing as if Mary were trying to hide beneath the canopy of silken strands. Nevertheless, Chris was able to see her lovely features marred by smaller bruises. The trail of discoloured flesh ran from her temples down to the arm trapped in wood.
She wasn't aware of him as she wept quietly, and each sob broke his heart.
"Mary" he spoke, letting her know he was there.
Mary lifted her head, brushing strands of hair out of her eyes so she could see him. For an instant, he was reminded of a rabbit caught in a trap, waiting to die. Terrified, in agony, and yet wholly resigned to the end that was coming. Her despair was so profound Chris felt his own control starting to waver. She held his gaze for a moment before turning away, because she couldn't bear to face him. He didn't say anything as he knelt down beside the soft skins of her bedding.
"The baby…" she tried to say but couldn't get the rest of it out.
"I know," Chris responded quickly, sparing her the pain of telling him.
Easing onto the skins beside her, Chris placed an arm around her waist, mindful of her injuries before planting a gentle kiss against her shoulder. Mary reacted by pushing her back against his body, needing his warmth as she wept her tears.
With her back to him, she tried again to explain herself. "I'm sorry. I should have listened to Inez. I should have gotten out of there sooner."
"You didn't know," Chris was unaware of what she was talking about but not caring.
What happened was not her fault, and Chris would die before letting her think that way. It broke his heart to hear the agony in her voice, but Chris knew of no words to ease this pain. All he could do was be there for her. While he could mourn the sorrows of a would-be father, the child was something she carried inside her, something cruelly ripped away from them both.
"I wanted it so much." Despite all the apprehension, she felt in the beginning, there was never a question of not wanting the baby. How could she not want anything made from the two of them? "Even when I was scared, I still wanted it. I swear Chris, I really did!"
"I know that Mary."
He could hear the guilt in her voice, the terrible self-loathing that came from thinking this was punishment for her earlier fears.
"I wanted it too. It would have been beautiful Mary," he kissed her shoulder again, trying to will his strength into her. He would have sold his soul then and there, if it meant taking away her pain. "Just like you."
"Oh Chris," she managed to turn around to face him. "What have I done to the future?" She stared at him at the realization of what the loss of this child would mean in their present situation. "I've ruined everything!"
Chris refused to let her continue. She already had enough guilt on her conscience without having the added burden of believing that as well.
"Mary, you didn't do anything to the future. You and I decide our fate based on what we want, not because of fancy tales we have no idea are true or not. Everything we do from here is what makes the future, and we will do it at our own pace and our own time. The future is not set Mary, it is what we make of it."
Whatever control Mary possessed dissolved completely, and she buried her face in the crook of his shoulder and released the full torrent of her grief. Chris kept his arms wrapped around her, careful of her broken arm, allowing her to cling to him as she wept in loud, wracking sobs. She needed to be held, so that's what he would do, hold her and never let her go.
It was time to finish this once and for all.
By the time Chris emerged from Mary’s tent to face his friends, he knew that much for sure. He was sick and tired of running from a mechanical monster who nearly delivered a mortal blow to the woman he loved. For this reason alone, Chris was going to find the Terminator, and then he was going to destroy it. He had never been surer of anything in his life than he was about this right now.
"Chris, I’m sorry," Vin said softly, not knowing what else to say other than that. He wanted to ask Chris how Mary was, but the look on the gunslinger’s face was answer enough.
Chris merely nodded in acknowledgment, but in truth wanted to hear no apologies or condolences. His own pain could wait until he was alone or there was a bottle of whisky in which to drown it. Right now, Chris had larger concerns on his mind. There was much to do, and he wanted to get started immediately.
Staring at Darien for a moment, Chris wondered if the man from the future knew this would happen but discarded the thought because no good would come of it. It did not matter whether Darien knew or not because it was too late, the baby was gone, and all that remained for Chris to do was find the Terminator and kill it before it did anything worse.
"I’m through running from this thing," he announced as he glared at Darien.
Darien could see the cold ruthlessness behind Chris Larabee’s eyes and knew he did not want to contradict that statement. "What have you got in mind?"
"Will it go after Billy now it’s lost Mary’s trail?"
"Well," Darien looked around the rustic setting. "It couldn’t possibly track you down here."
After what happened with Casey Wells, Darien had Selma search all the records regarding the seven because he was not underestimating the Terminator again. Even if Chris didn’t blame him for what happened to Mary, Darien felt he was responsible for some of it. Now Chris Larabee was not merely angry, he was killer angry.
"Everything else in Four Corners is a dead end so it will widen its search parameters. I’d say yeah, it’ll go after Billy now."
"Good." Chris nodded, counting on that information because he had a plan. "Get some food and rest. We’ll ride in an hour."
"Back to Eagle Bend?" Vin guessed.
"Yeah," Chris replied and went towards Alex, who was examining Inez’s bruised eye. With all the injuries she had been forced to deal with, Inez’s eye was almost an afterthought.
"I need to get going in an hour," he explained to the two women. "I ‘m trusting Mary in both your hands until we get back."
"Don’t worry Chris, we’ll make sure she’s okay. You’re going after that cabrón ?"
"Yes, I am." He said through gritted teeth, trying not to think about the Terminator or what it had done to Mary and his friends. "How’s Ezra?"
"Resting comfortably" Alex answered automatically. "He was lucky this morning, but he needs to heal.”
"Let him rest," Chris instructed, hating it Ezra couldn’t ride with them, but Ezra did enough already. From what Casey told him earlier, Ezra managed to save Inez and give the women time to get out alive. Chris wasn’t going to forget that.
Instead, he focused his rage into a thin line of singular concentration. In the last few minutes, a plan formed in his head. With the weapons Darien brought from the future, he knew he would still be gambling with his life, but Chris wanted to see that metal motherfucker burn after what it did to Mary. For her, he would destroy this thing, so she need never have to fear losing another child again.
He owed her that much.*****
The Terminator entered the town of Eagle Bend in the early hours of the morning, following its encounter with the secondary target. With her escape, it was once again forced to widen the parameters of its search since it had no data to extrapolate the present whereabouts of Chris Larabee.
Unlike Four Corners, Eagle Bend was a much larger township, thriving with commercial pursuits as well as rural ones. As the Terminator walked through the streets, it was lost in the crowds of people with no idea what it was that walked amongst them.
If the cyborg could feel human emotion, it would have felt some impatience at the length of time taken to arrive in Eagle Bend. The disadvantage of travelling through this time was the decided lack of useful transportation. Although it was quite possible for the Terminator to run all the way to the growing township, it expended too much time and allowed a wider margin of escape for the prey.
As animals possessed instincts incalculable by Skynet even in the 21st century, no Terminator was able to hide from the lower order organisms. Dogs were employed by John Conner’s rebels to identify cyborgs attempting infiltration of their underground refuges, for just this very reason.
Thus, travel by horseback was impossible. As its first encounter with the human it would later identify as one of Larabee’s companions had proved, equine mammals possessed the same aversion to cybernetic organisms as the canine variety. As a result, the Terminator was forced to make its way to Sweetwater, where the mass transit system of the time would ensure it would be delivered to Eagle Bend.
Eagle Bend was the home of Billy Travis. Its files indicated this human was only a child and the secondary target was its birth mother. Without a doubt, the retrieval of the child would bring her out of hiding. The Terminator and Skynet concluded where Mary Travis was to be found, Chris Larabee would not be far behind.
The Terminator made its way through the tree-lined streets where Judge Orin Travis and his wife had a residence. It was a friendly neighbourhood, none of which the Terminator could appreciate in any shape or form. According to its calendar, today was a weekend, and so the hunter knew the prey would be at home.
As it continued up the pathway, along the rows of white picket fences and children playing in yards, the Terminator collected the visual data as it was programmed to do. Under normal circumstances the information would be transmitted to Skynet after completion of the mission, however, in this case, Skynet was thirsty for any byte of information capable of assisting in the annihilation of the enemy.
It turned up the walkway of the house on the corner. An animal was tethered to a hitching post before the front gate. It neighed its dislike in a loud whiny as the Terminator walked past, kicking its spindly legs up and down as it passed by with little more than a glance. The black gelding stamped its hooves in protest until the Terminator was far enough away, so its scent was no longer frightened the animal.
Its internal sensors immediately detected a familiar DNA signature. Without further hesitation, it removed the weapon concealed under its coat of tanned animal hide. Aside from the shotgun in its hand, the Terminator carried several smaller handguns on its person, but it selected the more efficient and deadly item of its arsenal first.
Larabee was in the house. It did not matter how or why because he Terminator was uninterested in such details. The primary target was here, and the hunt could resume once again. Its sensors detected no other life forms in the house, and there was a moment of pause, where it considered this an unusual happenstance. Why was Larabee here alone?
After a moment of calculation, it selected the most obvious response. An attempt at an ambush. However, the discovery of the threat did not end its advance. The Skynet part of its reasoning was exerting full control, ignoring tactical information for the more immediate need to complete the mission and save its existence. The Terminator advanced up the paved path, past the rose shrubs flanking the way to the front door. With one swift kick, it was able to bring down the heavy door with a thundering crash. Torn hinges hung precariously from the damaged wood as the Terminator entered the premises.
Larabee was close.
The sensors were starting to become ineffective by the proximity of the target. The Terminator made its way through the house with its elegant antique furniture and lace curtains. The odour of fresh flowers followed it as it crossed the length of the house in an instant. It was almost to the kitchen when audio sensors detected noise behind it. The Terminator swung around and found itself staring at the primary target, glaring at it from the doorway of the front entrance.
"I hear you’ve been looking for me." Chris Larabee spoke.
The Terminator reacted with lightning-fast reflexes, swinging the shotgun into firing position. Before it could squeeze the trigger, Chris darted through the door and was running down the walkway the cyborg just travelled. The Terminator fired anyway, the trajectory of shotgun pellets creating a hole through the wooden door frame and sending splinters in all directions. By now the primary target had fled.
Without further delay, the Terminator ran out of the house and saw Labrabee mounting the horse tethered outside. It raised its gun to fire again when it saw Larabee dig his heels into the gelding’s sides to sent it bolting forward. The horse took off through the street, and the Terminator leapt over the fence and was able to keep pace with it. Unlike the wagon earlier, the speed of the animal was hindered by the urban location.
Very quickly, the horse and rider reached the crowded main street of Eagle Bend with the Terminator still able to keep the target in its line of sight. The animal had difficulty weaving through the Saturday morning crowd of housewives and children indulging themselves in the weekend shopping and play respectively. Food vendors were out in force, along with newspaper boys as the township of Eagle Bend came alive with the morning.
No one paid any attention to the man in black riding a black gelding through town. Eagle Bend was not so far removed from its frontier days to forget the rabble-rousers and cowboys for which the West was infamous. Shootouts, although rare, were still a part of its culture, and while people took cover at the sight of the Terminator chasing Larabee on foot, it was nothing they had not seen or remembered from the town’s past.
Chris looked over his shoulder and saw the Terminator keeping up with his horse. Despite himself, he could not help feeling a little awed at the speed of the mechanical man. As soon as it encountered people, it began shoving them aside with little regard. The air came alive with the screams of outrage trailing the Terminator in its wake.
The gelding turned the corner of the dirt street, and for the first time, Chris could see the silhouette of the locomotive in the distance. At this time, the train was idling on the tracks. It waited patiently for the cleaning crew to arrive to prepare the carriages for the next leg of its journey. At this moment, Buck and Darien were ensuring no one was on the train when he and the Terminator arrived.
Chris dismounted the gelding as he reached the station, barely looking behind him to see if the Terminator was following because he knew it was. Its relentless pursuit of him was almost human. Chris pushed his way through the passengers who were lingering at the ticket booth. Leaping over the turnstile, he stepped onto the empty platform. Until the cars were cleaned, the paying public would not be allowed access to the train. However, no one attempted to stop him because Darien neutralized most of the station staff by injecting them with bullets that acted like sedatives. When they awoke again, they would find the train missing with no idea of who had taken it.
Crushing gravel underfoot as he ran towards the train, Chris finally risked looking over his shoulder and saw the Terminator following just as closely. As a matter of fact, it was gaining ground quite rapidly. Chris caught sight of Darien waiting at the head of the locomotive. The train was already billowing clouds of smoke through its funnel in anticipation of the journey soon to begin. For the last hour or so, Darien familiarised himself with the vehicle to play his part in Chris’s plan.
As Chris ran through the open door of one of the cars, the train whistle bellowed its intention to depart. Pistons came to life, forcing conrods into motion as the wheels started forward, propelling the locomotive forward. Chris disappeared into one of the numerous carriages on the train and held back long enough for the Terminator to see where he had gone.
The Terminator had no difficulty spotting the primary now it fixed on Larabeel’s DNA signature. It leapt onto the narrow platform leading into the last carriage to maintain the pursuit.
The wheels of the train heaved into movement as the locomotion jerked into action, slowly gaining speed as it began its snake-like exodus from Eagle Bend towards an uncertain destination. As it chugged past the platform, leaving the town behind, Chris allowed himself a note of satisfaction knowing Billy was at this moment with Orin and Evie Travis, safe from the grasp of any mechanical murderer. Chris had not lied when he told the others he was bringing an end to this relentless hunt.
Except for Buck and Darien at the controls of the locomotive, Chris was alone with the Terminator. The gunslinger preparing for a game of cat and mouse which would decide the future of them all. Chris was unwilling to risk any more lives to protect himself from this creature of steel and flesh. This was the final showdown Chris did not intend to lose.
If this Skynet wanted Chris Larabee so badly, it better be prepared to storm the gates of hell to find him because Chris was going to destroy it one way or the other.*****
"You sure you know how to drive this thing?" Buck looked at Darien with concern as the train began to pull out of the station. Eagle Bend swept past them in a blur of colour within a few seconds, and they were soon heading out towards the open country.
"Trust me, Buck." Darien grinned, unable to not feel some excitement at what they were planning to do. He had seen trains like these in museums in the future. However, it was nothing like the thrill of riding one, or better yet, driving it. "Selma knows everything there is to know about trains."
“That does not make me feel better." Buck was unimpressed by his enthusiasm as the sounds of engines chugged louder in his ears.
Darien did not blame Buck for his grim outlook. Buck was very vocal in his dislike of Chris Larabee’s plan, mostly because of the danger to Chris himself. Darien could share the sentiment since he was not overly fond of the idea at this moment, Chris was trying to keep one step ahead of the Terminator in the carriages they were taking along for the ride.
Fortunately, Selma’s memory-erasing abilities would keep the seven from suffering any consequences for stealing the train. Darien did not like utilizing her neural manipulation functions but realized it was necessary in this instance. The only memory retained by any witnesses would be that of the Terminator stealing the locomotive, and if all went as planned; even that little aspect would become a moot point.
Buck kept looking out of the window, trying in a futile attempt to catch a glimpse of how Chris was faring inside the train carriages. The urge to help his friend was making Buck pace the floor of the driver’s compartment like a caged animal. Darien was starting to get nervous merely looking at him.
"Buck, he will be okay."
"I know that! Chris can take care of himself." Buck grumbled, not sounding very convinced. "Let’s just hope you can drive this thing and Josiah takes care of his part of the plan."
Darien hoped so too because if Josiah and others failed, then this would all be for nothing.
Chris had caught himself a tiger by the tail.
He always wondered what that meant, or why anyone would place themselves in such a dangerous situation. However, as he moved further up the train with the Terminator never more than a carriage behind, Chris understood the saying correctly. The Terminator showed no indication it was aware it was being led into a trap, not that it had any reason to be worried. Chris dodged it long enough for the train to leave the station and get fully underway. The journey to the rendezvous point was twenty minutes away. Throughout that time, Chris was going to have to stay ahead of the mechanical hunter.
Removing the gun Darien gave him from his holster, Chris paused a moment in the dining car to examine the weapon closely. It looked like one of his irons, but it had none of the refinement of his pearl-handled peacemaker. Instead, its appearance was squarish and chunky, with a finish that made the metal seem black. It had ten rounds, and inside Chris’s pockets were a handful of replacement clips. Darien gave him an abridged lesson in how to use the weapon and reload it, before the Terminator’s arrival. Other similar treasures were hidden across the train, but at the moment, this would have to do.
Suddenly, he heard the familiar slam of a carriage door and peered through the glass to see the Terminator crossing the juncture in between the train cars. Chris was told the gun was capable of extreme distances and as soon as he saw the Terminator appear at the door to the dining carriage, he aimed at the cyborg’s head and began firing.
A hail of bullets ripped from the barrel, startling Chris to no end since he was accustomed to cocking his gun after every shot. However, the momentary lapse was quickly hurdled, and Chris saw the bullets tear across the Terminator’s chest in quick succession. The force of the gunfire staggered the cyborg, and it recoiled into the door, shattering the glass in its retreat.
Not allowing it the chance to recover, Chris squeezed the trigger again. He was rewarded by seeing the Terminator jerking around like a puppet as multiple bullets tore its chest apart. An expanding stain of crimson stretched across those massive pectorals. The Terminator smashed through the doorway, swinging the wooden door, carried by the wind rushing past the train, outward. It leaned against the railing as it took a second to recover from the gunfire. However, the second no sooner elapsed when it was striding purposefully through the door of the dining car once again.
Chris knew when it was time to leave, and he stopped shooting immediately. He hurried through the rear access of the carriage and saw the Terminator running after him in full stride. The cyborg drew both guns drawn and was firing at him now, perhaps to return the favour of his earlier barrage. Chris kept his head down as he felt bullets whizzing past him. Some impacted on the wooden walls of the carriage, others shattered crockery resting neatly on the set dining tables.
It was open season on everything in the room, and no object escaped unscathed. Forks and knives spun on the table-clothed surfaces as projectiles brushed past them. Picture frames clattered to the floor, and the sound of breaking glass almost eclipsed the gunfire. The whole room was quickly transformed into a warzone as pieces of shattered ceramic covered the floor, becoming lost in fallen cutlery and the debris of splintered wood.
Chris could see it coming as the gunslinger ran down into another empty passenger car. He ducked into one of the private compartments as he heard the crash and clatter of the Terminator’s approach. Locking the door to the cubicle, a futile gesture Chris thought on reflection, he went to the picture window.
Glancing outside, he could see they were well on their way to the rendezvous point. Chris began to undo the lock when to his chagrin he found the mechanism was damaged and the window was not opening. The seconds ticked by as Chris wrestled with the uncooperative lock, trying to force it open when suddenly the Terminator was at the entrance to the compartment.
Chris remembered what Darien told him about getting into an enclosed space with the cyborg and immediately forgot about the window or the bad luck of it being jammed. The Terminator aimed at Chris and began firing; Chris ducked for cover as the bullets tore through the small space, shattering the glass window and tearing through the upholstered seats.
In a moment of absurdity, Chris found some satisfaction in the destruction of the window that cost him precious time. Beams of light started appearing through the bullet-ridden holes of the compartment as Chris stayed down and let the Terminator do its worst, knowing inevitably, the cyborg would come through the door to deal with him directly. After what he saw in the saloon, Chris had no intention of going hand to hand with the monster under any circumstances.
As expected, the Terminator entered the compartment and quickly located Chris. Chris scrambled to his feet to get away when the Terminator yanked him back by his duster. The human felt his head slam against the floor and a thousand colours flashed before his eyes in the stupor of disorientation. The warmth of blood ran down his forehead. Chris felt himself being dragged backwards by a firm grip and recovered enough to turn around to see what the Terminator was planning.
The cyborg had produced the shotgun with its other hand, with every intention of blowing a hole through Chris to fulfil its mission objective. Without thinking, Chris swung his gun at the Terminator and took careful aim. He had no concern as to where the others following it would go. He only cared about the initial projectile. The bullet penetrated the opening in the folds of the bandages wrapped around the Terminator’s head.
The cyborg released its grip of Chris as its hands instinctively clutched the optical sensor in its left eye when it was destroyed by the strength of a 45-calibre bullet. Chris wasted no time using the few seconds it would take for the Terminator to recover from this assault. With its huge form blocking the door of the compartment, Chris hurried towards the shattered window as he had initially intended.
Climbing through it, he fought the air rushing past him as he wrapped his fingers around the safety bars of the window, to shimmy to another compartment. He was pressed against the smooth steel of the train car while telegraph poles breezed past him. Resisting the urge to look down, he started the laborious journey to the next compartment, fighting the wind threatening to tear him away.
He had almost cleared the window when the Terminator appeared through the window and grabbed his wrist, pulling him back.
"Get your fucking hands off me!" Chris swore and risked letting go of one of the bars to use his gun.
This time, he aimed point-blank into the cyborg’s face. It was indifferent to the danger or did not presume to believe it could be damaged. Chris did not care which and squeezed off a round nevertheless. The bullets slammed into the cyborg’s face although the thick endoskeleton deflected the projectiles, sending one straight into Chris’s arm.
Chris let out a groan of pain as the Terminator released its grip. The injury caused Chris to lose the grip of his gun, and the automatic was swept away by the wind. Chris was half-aware of it clattering down the tracks as he dangled precariously from the bar with one hand. Despite the pain, Chris knew he did not have much time. The Terminator was better at recovery than he was, and Chris bit down as he continued his advance to the next compartment.*****
"How long until they get here?" Nathan asked as he and Josiah finished their work of redirecting the train tracks.
They rode out of Eagle Bend some hours ago to reach this point and knew much hinged on completing this part of the plan. Chris’s strategy was tenuous at best, and not one of the seven liked the idea of what he planned. Unfortunately, they had to begrudgingly agree with Chris this situation had gone far enough. They understood he was motivated by hatred for the monster who robbed him and the woman he loved of their first child together, but they also knew despite their reservations, this was the best way.
Nathan, Josiah and JD reached Eagle Bend the afternoon before the Terminator’s arrival, while the rest of their number came later that night. Once they were together again, Chris outlined his audacious plan, basing everything on the supposition the Terminator would come by train since it couldn't ride after the reaction Peso’s reaction to the cyborg. Volunteering himself as bait, the plan was to lead the Terminator well away from Eagle Bend and Billy Travis before destroying the evil machine permanently.
"About twenty minutes I think," Josiah replied as he placed his large hands on the lever for switching tracks. With a sharp push forward, the lengths of steel slid into place and connected to the tarnished line overgrown with weeds and shrubs from years of neglect. The fork in the tracks curved away from the mainline and would continue into the mountains toward its ultimate destiny.
"I hope Chris can stay ahead of that thing," Nathan said, trying not to worry about their leader, even though Chris was extremely resourceful. However, none of them could ignore what Chris was fighting was no man, and while if it took a mechanical creature from the future to defeat him, Chris might have met his match.
"Well," Josiah said with a quiet sigh, staring into the horizon at the direction in which the unseen train would soon arrive. "We’ll know soon enough."*****
Instead of climbing into the second compartment where the Terminator was undoubtedly waiting for him, Chris decided to make his way forward using the roof. The wound on his arm ached painfully, and it took more time than he liked to make the crossing. However, this ensured the Terminator would not attempt to pull him back into the carriage again.
The thought no sooner crossed his mind, when the floor in front of him erupted outwards as bullets tore through the wood from inside the carriage. Bullet holes riddled the roof and snaked towards Chris with barely a moment to spare for him to flee. He was on his feet immediately, ignoring the pain in his arm and hoping the intensity of it did not mean he was seriously hurt.
Chris ran down the length of the carriage roof, just keeping ahead of the gunfire nipping at his heels. He reached the end of the carriage and took a deep breath as he leapt across the gap between cars and landed on his knees at the edge of the next vehicle. In turn, the Terminator reached the juncture and quickly assessed Chris was still on the roof before continuing with its current strategy.
When Chris heard the door opening on the carriage below, he resumed running again. The engine car of the locomotive was only three or four carriages away, and Chris could not allow the Terminator to disrupt Darien’s attempt to bring the train to its destination. Somehow, he had to think of a way to draw the Terminator away from that final carriage. Instead of running forward, Chris began backtracking to the carriage where one of Darien’s futuristic weapons waited. He knew the Terminator would immediately pick up the change of direction, but at this point, Chris did not have any choice in the matter.
Judging by where they were, Chris realized the train was due to change tracks in five minutes. Very soon, he would be able to catch sight of Josiah and Nathan if they played their part as instructed. His arm ached as Chris ran, but he was beyond caring. They were almost at the end of this nightmare, and he was not about to let a little pain hinder their progress.
Okay, so it was a bit more than a little pain.
With only a narrow margin of time to act, Chris jumped onto the platform leading inside the carriage he was attempting to reach. The car was allotted as a third-class carriage, with seats for passengers instead of private compartments. As Chris stepped inside, he saw the Terminator quickly making its way through the next carriage towards him.
Chris estimated no more than fifteen seconds before the cyborg reached him. He ducked behind the last seat and found the weapon nestled underneath it. For all intents and purposes, it looked like a rifle to Chris, but like the smaller version, had to be loaded with clips of at least twenty to thirty rounds, requiring nothing more than a single pull of the trigger to send a murderous hail of bullets in the direction desired.
Chris was going to hate returning it to Darien.
By the time the Terminator reached the doors, Chris was ready for it. Waiting until the cyborg entered the room, Chris started firing. Unlike a rifle, the weapon was not very loud, and it made a strange rat-tat-tat voice noise Chris found was strange to hear from a gun. There was no dramatic booming sound, but the delivery was nowhere as understated as its audio acoustics.
The rounds tore through the Terminator’s wounded and bleeding outer covering, creating spurts of blood with each entry. Chris saw flesh starting to shred off its skin as the bullets dug into its metallic shell. The fearsome hail forced the Terminator to retreat, but it did not take long before the cyborg was able to absorb the shots and resume the chase. There was never any sign of pain on its face despite the abuses received by its body. It looked at Chris impassively as ever, utterly mechanical in its expression. Its indifference infuriated the human to no end, and Chris fired again, wanting the continuous barrage of gunfire to hurt it in some way.
Josiah and Nathan appeared as the train sped past them. Their eyes searched the carriages, trying to see him, but the train was travelling too fast for that. He took note of the territory the train was entering and realized the time to keep the Terminator distracted was quickly dwindling. The locomotive had been diverted from the main track as Chris planned, taking the disused line leading through the rugged landscape. The frontier towns in this area dwindled away with the destruction of the bridge, and until it was repaired, those towns would remain in limbo.
Chris ran out of the carriage with the Terminator following close and firing. He felt a bullet graze his ear as he ran out of the car and scrambled up the rungs taking him to the roof once again. The Terminator did not waste its time with any half measures and climbed onto the roof after him, with no hesitation about shooting a man in the back.
It was a minor miracle Chris had avoided another bullet for as long as he had, but the miracles were about to run dry for him. Chris felt his leg give way as one of the Terminator’s projectiles sent waves of screaming pain through him when it penetrated the flesh of his thigh. He let out a soft grunt as he felt his knee hit the hard-wooden surface, with the instinctive knowledge he was hit badly.
Unfortunately, Chris did not have time to suffer the wound because if the Terminator reached him, an injured leg was going to be the least of his problems. Forcing himself to stand because the Terminator was gaining valuable ground, Chris started running again, feeling exquisite agony with each step forward. When he leapt across the gap, he barely made it, almost missed clearing the distance. The blood was starting to soak his trouser leg, and Chris knew he could bleed to death.
The Terminator was still behind, determined not to let him escape. Chris ran forward, noticeably slower as he limped painfully against the rush of the wind created by the speeding locomotive. As they passed the hills and took the track leading to the damaged bridge, Chris saw riders emerge from behind the rocky pass. There were just two of them, riding hard with horses in tow.
The arrival of Vin Tanner told Chris just how long he had until the train arrived at the bridge, which was not very long at all.*****
Vin saw Chris struggling to keep ahead of the Terminator, obviously injured, and knew without a doubt the monster would catch up with the gunslinger unless he and JD did something quickly. Fortunately, Vin did not have to tell the young man to act because JD was already pulling away and edging his horse alongside the locomotive. JD was easily the best rider among the seven, even if he was the youngest and hailed from the East. Years of dreaming of becoming a Wild West legend encouraged the boy to learn the discipline rigorously.
JD brought his mount along the side of the train and got as close to the Terminator as possible. The young man could see Chris struggling to maintain the pace of keeping ahead but the injuries were getting the best of him. JD drew his gun and started squeezing shots in the direction of Chris’s assailant. If what he was was true, the bullets would do very little harm to the thing, but at least it would distract it enough to let Chris widen the gap between them. The shots fired struck the side of the Terminator, which did little more than pause before turning sharply to JD. JD saw the huge man raise a shotgun in his direction.
"Watch out!" He heard Vin yelled, but JD was already ducking the blast that roared through the air. He did not know how close the shot had come to hitting him, but the roar seemed very close, and JD returned fire with the remaining shells in his gun. JD needed to slow down to reload but somehow guessed that time had almost run out. As he looked ahead, JD could see they were fast running out of land and track.
Chris had better make his move fast, or they were all going to have reason to regret it.*****
Chris saw the same thing JD did and using the distraction the young man provided, jumped onto the freight bin carrying the locomotive’s supply of coal. The Terminator was currently dealing with JD allowing Chris to use the railings on the side of the car to reach the engines. In the distance, he could see the bridge. From this angle, it was not possible to see it was incomplete, but Chris knew it wasn't. He had ridden through this area a few months ago and came across the damaged structure.
As Vin rode past him with the horses, Chris could see Buck and Darien emerging from the driver’s compartment. Buck’s face showed his worried expression, and Chris followed his gaze to see the Terminator was only a few feet behind him. By now Vin had brought the horse to the front of the train, somehow matching the pace as Buck and Darien prepared to dismount. The plan had been to wait until Chris joined them, but it was fast becoming apparent that would not happen.
"Chris!" Buck called out, urging him to hurry.
His injuries had cost him valuable time, but Chris was not about to let Buck and Darien pay for it with their lives. Maintaining his advance to the engines, Chris shouted... "Go!"
"We aren’t leaving you!" Buck shouted back in protest, realizing what Chris wanted him to do.
"NOW BUCK! NOW!" Chris fairly screamed against the roar of wind threatening to sweep him aside.
Buck gave him an anguished look as Vin urged them to hurry. Chris had no intention of dying, but if he jumped, the Terminator would follow, and this entire exercise would be for nothing. Chris had to stay until the very last moment. He saw Buck leap out of the driver’s compartment and land shakily on the horse.
"Larabee!" Darien cried out. "This is for nothing if you die!"
"Just go!" Chris ordered once more. Darien looked at him uncertainly but complied finally, jumping off the edge, to the horse waiting for him. As soon as the two men were away, the animals veered away from the train, and Chris let out a sigh of relief as he watched them fade into the distance.
Chris slid across the rail and finally reached the abandoned driver’s cabin. The furnace was closed, and the stench of smoke was heavy in the small compartment. Chris saw the approaching bridge and peered out the window to see exactly where the Terminator was at this point. The cyborg was clambering over the woodpile, oblivious to where the train was headed, only concerned with the fact that his target was finally within reach.
Chris saw the track moving into the framework of the incomplete bridge and stood poised at the edge of the compartment, keeping his eyes trained on the Terminator advancing forward. Chris waited until it had to climb off the woodpile to shimmy the rest of the journey when Chris saw the land before him start to dissolve.
It was now or never.
Closing his eyes and taking a leap of faith, Chris Larabee jumped. The Terminator’s head pivoted sharply in the direction of his descent when it suddenly realized what had happened. Unfortunately, the discovery came too late when the train reached the edge of the track and kept going. It was still considering its position when the train tumbled into the chasm. The juggernaut plunged into a free fall before the entire locomotive and carriages collapsed on top of each other, folding upon itself in a final dance of death.
When the earth finally reached up and claimed its prize, the loud explosion echoed through the canyon with a deafening roar. The shock wave sent tremors through the ground, making the land quake. A wall of flames jetted through the air, consuming everything in its path, wind, wood and metal until it curled into a column of black smoke.
Chris Larabee did not dare to move for a few seconds. Violent tremors moved through him following the train’s explosion. His body ached in a dozen places. His shoulder stung, not just from a bullet wound but also from a dislocated shoulder which had taken the brunt of his landing.
He remained where he was for a short time, letting his exhaustion overtake him momentarily before making an attempt to sit up. It was an action he regretted almost instantly, but Chris was compelled to satisfy his curiosity. With a loud groan, he rose to his feet unsteadily and staggered forward, expecting Vin and the others to appear soon enough.
Chris hobbled to the edge of the cliff and peered down into the canyon below. The ground beneath was an inferno of twisted metal and burning wood. The debris was spread over a large area of the canyon floor, but Chris could see nothing to indicate the Terminator was similarly destroyed. He did not think anything could have survived such a fiery end, but the past few days was one of surprises. The impossible seemed to have little meaning when it came to the matter of time travellers and machines thinking like men.
"You okay pard?" he heard Vin Tanner ask after the tracker rode up to him and dismounted. Behind him were Darien and the others.
Chris, who was clutching his shoulder and had a visible grimace on his features, offered the younger man a faint smile. With dirt and soot stuck to his skin with sweat and blood, Chris could only mutter a painful response. "I’ve been better."
"Did it go down with the train?" Vin asked, staring at the fiery wreckage below.
Chris nodded slowly. "All the way."
"Then it’s over." Vin met his gaze.
Chris stared at the burning heap of wood and steel, smelling the stench of heated oil and metal wafting through the air. He wondered if the warmth he felt was from the summer heat or could it really be the roast of the fiery wreck below. Was it over? Chris was unprepared to make that assumption just yet.
"We need to get down there," he said simply. "I need to see it before I can believe any of this is over with."
As always, Vin’s reaction to such a statement was little more than a raised brow.
"I reckon we better get going then." The tracker said quietly and continued watching the mesmerizing dance of flames consuming remnants of the locomotive below and hopefully the Terminator as well.
It took a little more than an hour to reach the bottom of the canyon to verify the Terminator was indeed dead. Chris needed to see it for himself or else he would never believe it was truly gone. He was unprepared to live the rest of his life, watching the shadows around Mary for signs of imminent danger. For her sake as well as his, Chris wanted there to be no doubts.
Despite Nathan’s protests, they took the steep path down the craggy terrain, their eyes continued to search the wreckage as they descended. The fire would eventually attract someone’s attention, so Chris wanted to do this now while they could still slip away anonymously.
"What a mess," JD exclaimed as they reached the floor of the canyon. The destruction was almost complete with debris spread over a wide area until there were smoking embers of steel cackling everywhere. It was hard to imagine all this twisted metal had once been the main form of transport between Sweetwater and Eagle Bend.
"Just keep an eye open," Chris warned as he stood still long enough for Nathan to examine the wound on his leg once again. The healer wanted him off his feet immediately, not hobbling about the place searching for mechanical phantoms. Chris’s injuries were severe, but nothing Nathan could say was able to influence Chris Larabee once he set his mind on something.
"I better stick with him then," Josiah remarked, knowing just how young and eager JD could be when it came to rushing into trouble. The young man had a keener scent of getting himself into strife than anyone the preacher had ever met. For some reason, Josiah felt as if JD was a lamb in his flock that required special tending, and as one of his shepherds, he was obligated to keep an eye on him.
"Good idea." Chris offered Josiah a knowing smile. They were all accustomed to JD’s naivete by now.
"Selma," Darien spoke. "Are you picking up any signs of artificial neural patterns?" The seven fanned out, keeping the wreckage under close scrutiny. It was hard to spot movement when there was so much damage and heat. In fact, Darien did not like remaining in the vicinity because the air was almost toxic.
"None Captain," Selma replied. "However, it is difficult to ascertain an accurate reading with the surface temperature being what it is."
"I understand." Darien frowned, his eyes moving past the demolished carriages whose remains were burning steadily in the late morning heat.
"Could it have survived the fall?" Buck asked Darien since his descendant from the future seemed to have all the answers lately.
Despite his aloof manner, Buck knew Darien did not loathe him or what he was. Darien’s fear came from the unanswered questions about his own life, and Buck could appreciate what it meant to be finally in reach of that desire. In some ways, Buck felt protective towards Darien, feeling a desire to remain close to the man because Darien was his legacy to the world. Whether or not he knew it, Darien had become proof of Buck Wilmington’s belief his life would mean something to someone, and there would be children in his future. It was a good feeling.
"I doubt it." Darien shook his head. "Titanium or not, that was almost a hundred-foot drop riding the tail of a locomotive. The shock wave alone should have vaporized it." Darien was probably exaggerating, but Buck seemed to have an idea of what he was talking about. "However, we are talking about technology I’ve never seen before, so it’s anyone’s guess."
"What about that fancy machine you got there," Buck remarked, indicating Selma. "She seems to know quite a bit."
"I’ve asked." Darien smiled, wondering how Selma would have taken the description. "The heat from the fire is making it difficult to tell."
"You really should be off this leg." Nathan reminded Chris. He and Vin were following Chris closely as the gunslinger limped around the periphery of the blaze, trying to see more than just shards of twisted metal and flaming wood in the fiery heap.
"Nathan, you sound like my mother. Stop clucking."
Nathan stiffened in annoyance. "Well, don’t you come running to me if your leg doesn’t work right later."
"In that case, he won’t be running anywhere," Vin said with a faint smile that received a scathing look from Nathan.
Anything else Chris was going to say was interrupted when there was a sudden creak of metal directly in front of him. Chris saw the heaving of a steel girder, shifting position as something forced it away. The length of iron tumbled aside with a loud clang and immediately brought the others running towards Chris’s side. He held his ground, listening carefully to the sounds of something beneath the debris burrowing towards him.
The Terminator appeared. What was left of it anyway.
Its outer covering of skin was completely gone now, and the seven found themselves facing a monstrosity of metal with one glowing red eye. It crawled towards Chris, pulling itself along the ground since it could no longer stand. Both its legs and one arm had been completely detached, wires and conduits bleeding fluid and sparks as it struggled to complete its directive even in this damaged state. What was left of its destroyed microprocessor still identified Chris as the enemy. Chris stared at it dispassionately, allowing himself to feel the hatred he had been keeping inside since he found out about Mary.
"Vin," Chris replied, never taking his eyes off the beast in its pitiful advance.
"Yeah, Chris?" Vin asked, staring at the thing with something akin to horror and disgust. In fact, they were all looking at it with similar shades of distaste. Until now, they only pictured the Terminator as a man, walking, talking and breathing, capable of taking several bullet wounds, but nevertheless, it appeared in their minds as something human.
Not any more.
"Vin," Chris spoke again, snapping Vin out of his observation. "You got the dynamite?"
"Yeah," Vin nodded and strode away to his horse to retrieve the explosives Chris asked him to purchase while they were in Eagle Bend last night. Despite the weapons Darien was kind enough to provide, Chris wanted the use of something familiar.
Vin handed him the cylindrical length of explosive when the tracker returned. The Terminator was only a few yards from Chris, but judging by its state, it was incapable of harming anyone now. Still, it was not wise to take chances.
Chris hobbled forward, meeting the cyborg halfway. It made a weak attempt to grab his leg, but Chris slammed his uninjured foot against the metal hulk’s wrist and ground it into the dirt, imprisoning it where it was. Bending down slightly, Chris lit the stick of dynamite as the Terminator snapped its head upward to look at him. The destroyed optic sensor gaped open at Chris through a dark eye socket. Jamming the explosive into the open orifice, Chris lit the fuse and stepped back as it started to burn with a loud hiss.
Chris had parting words for the cyborg in an instant before its destruction.
With that, the cyborg’s skull exploded.
Metal chunks flew in all directions, pieces of a central processor and other integrated chips far beyond the capability of the nineteenth and twentieth-century technology, rained down around their ears as fragments of alien metal. The exoskeleton was blown apart completely, pieces scattering over a wide area in a smoking mess. Chris shook a piece of debris from his duster before turning his back on it and said with a quiet whisper.
"That was for Mary."
After the seven collected the remains of the Terminator and buried them deep beneath the earth within that desolate canyon, Darien knew his time in the nineteenth century was at an end. As much as he cared about the people here, he was not of this time, and his continued presence could be as dangerous to the timeline as the Terminator itself.
Injecting himself with the modified TXP pellet Sahmbi provided for his return journey home, Darien hoped the drug would do everything Sahmbi claimed it would. He was still unable to take the doctor on faith, even though without Sahmbi's help, the future would have died in the making.
Fortunately, the quick death Darien feared never came, and he authorized Selma to send the transmission to bring him home. He had no idea how long it would take before he dissolved into nothingness, transformed into a matter stream riding the temporal waves to the twentieth century. Thus, Darien chose to say his goodbyes before that moment, not wishing to leave things unsaid. Most of all, he wanted to speak to Buck Wilmington, who was no doubt his ancestor and had given him something precious, Darien never expected to gain in his wildest imaginings.
It was quite a sobering experience to know you were not just a Caucasian or a Blanco but also an American, with ancestors who originated in the untamed frontiers of the west. If he chose, he could trace his family tree from Buck Wilmington all the way to his parents, whoever they might be. Perhaps he would do that someday after he got home, but now, Darien was comfortable with what he already knew, and leave the rest a mystery for a while. It brought a smile to his face, knowing he had at the very least found himself in time, instead of fleeing it.
"I better get this over and done with," Darien remarked as he and Buck rode side by side while they took the steep climb out of the canyon. He had been saying his farewells as they continued along the trail, uncertain when he would vanish back to his own time.
"Kinda spooky you just disappear like that." Buck pointed out. "Inconvenient too."
"Yeah, I'm used to it. I disappear a lot, even in the twentieth century." He stared into the unspoiled beauty of the land before them. Even with the pyre of the locomotive burning at the bottom of the canyon, it maintained a serene quality that would be gone by the time the twentieth century claimed it.
"I kind of guessed that." Buck nodded, unable to ignore the underlying sadness living inside Darien Lambert. He sensed loneliness in the man, which made Buck grateful for the friends in his life. "Maybe, you ought to let go of her."
Darien met his gaze. "She's the reason I decided to do this."
"I don't think she'd want you to spend your life in mourning." Buck looked at him thoughtfully.
"I'm not mourning." Darien began to protest and saw the knowing look in Buck's face. "Perhaps just a little ."
"A man can only spend so many years dreaming of what might have been before it takes its toll and you find your life has slipped by, without you even living it. I hate to think any of my kin going through that."
Darien smiled at Buck's use of the word 'kin'. It brought warmth to his soul to hear someone considered him family, even in this time. "I promise I will get back on the horse."
"Now you're talking, and if I might add, getting yourself some female company ain't such a bad idea either. You got to sow your wild oats a little."
Darien could only shake his head in resignation. While he had not been celibate since Elyssa's death, Darien could not womanize the way Buck did. Buck made it seem like an art, if even half the stories JD told him were true. "Do we have rabbit somewhere in our family tree? Besides I thought you and Inez were an item."
"She hasn't succumbed to my charms yet, but she will."
"I am really hoping she doesn't end up being my great, great, great grandmother or something."
"Why?" Buck looked at him in confusion. "She's a fine lady."
"Exactly, I just hate to think what you're going to put her through."****
Finally, Darien reached Chris Larabee, the reason he made this journey into the past, to begin with. In some ways, he was grateful to Larabee for all the things he gained on this trip. He just wished it had not been at the cost of an unborn child. History decreed Chris and Mary would raise a few children whose progeny would produce a Caesar into the world when it needed one the most. However, the little footnotes in history sounded shallow, considering the heartache they were now feeling.
Chris was sitting straight in the saddle despite his injuries. It was hard to know what was on the man's mind half the time. He was, in Darien's opinion, one of the most challenging people to read. It was easy to understand where John's presence originated after meeting Chris Larabee. Darien admired him greatly, admired his strength, and most of all, the quiet patience in which he attacked a problem. Not many men would have placed themselves in danger to destroy the Terminator, but Darien had a feeling Chris found no difficulty making such decisions daily.
"I'm liable to disappear at any time," he said as he reached Chris. "I thought I'd make my goodbyes while I still can."
Chris looked at him and nodded. "When do you think you will get taken?"
Darien shook his head in response. "I have no idea. It will be soon enough. No more than a day for certain."
Chris stared at the road ahead before speaking once more. "Thank you for what you did."
"You did most of it." Darien returned quickly. "I just told you what was coming."
"You saved my life in the saloon," Chris said firmly, in a manner that tolerated no argument on this point. "I would have died then if you hadn't come along."
"I did it for myself as much as I did it for you Chris," Darien answered, feeling embarrassed by the sentiment since it was just as much in his favour Chris Larabee lived. "If you died, I'd have nothing to go back to."
"Learn to take a compliment." Chris smiled, eyes still fixed on the trail ahead.
Darien laughed softly. "You're welcome."
"What will you do when you go back?" Chris inquired, genuinely interested. In the past two days, he had come to see Darien as someone who could have been a friend, the way Buck was. Although they were poles apart, Chris could see the same personality underlying the experiences of each other's lives.
"The same thing I always do," Darien answered, thinking about the fifty to sixty fugitives still escaping justice in the twentieth century. Granted he had help now, but it was still a difficult task he set himself for the sake of the promise he made to Elyssa. "Find them and send them back to the twenty-second century."
"Do you go back when you're done?"
Darien stared at him, wondering where Larabee was going with this line of inquiry. While he was presented with many questions in the past two days from the others, Chris showed very little interest in what the future held. Darien could understand that he supposed, considering how Chris was unwillingly privy to more about his future than any man should know.
"No," he answered truthfully because he was sure Chris would spot it if he lied. "I don't think I will. I like the twentieth century, rough and tumble as it is. There's still a little mystery left in the world."
Chris nodded. "This woman named Sarah. What's she like?"
"Sad," Darien said without hesitation. "Lots of memories of things that never happened, but she remembers. Now the Terminator is gone, things should be back to normal. My timeline would have restored itself, and there won't be any Judgement Day. Kyle Reese will be born in about ten years, and he won't have any idea what he meant to her."
"My wife was called Sarah," Chris admitted quietly. "I hate to think of your Sarah is alone with a son, the way mine was when I lost them."
"She's a strong woman. Strongest one I've met."
"So was my wife, but I'd still appreciate it if you kept an eye on them. It feels kind of right, you doing it. Buck loved Adam like he was his own. I never realized until later how much it hurt him too when they died."
"I can do that for you." Darien agreed, intending to do so anyway, even if Sarah did not remember him. "If you do me the favour of seeing to it Buck doesn't get himself killed by an angry husband."
Chris laughed softly. "I've been doing that since I met him. I don't think I'll be quitting now." He paused a moment and then turned to Darien, meeting the man's gaze for the first time. "It's been a pleasure knowing you Darien. I mean it."
"Well," Darien sighed, trying not to let the emotions get the better of him. "I won't forget anyone of you that's for sure, and I think I'll even miss you."
Chris believed he meant it and wished a happier life for this man from the future. Chris did not add the same sadness Darien perceived in Sarah Connor was also reflected in his own eyes. The gunslinger knew personally what it was like to endure the loss he saw in Darien's eyes and hoped someday, Darien would meet someone who could take that emptiness away.
Otherwise, the future was a cold place already.****
Darien Lambert disappeared out of their lives as abruptly as he had entered it.
They were almost back to Eagle Bend when suddenly he vanished into thin air, leaving only his horse behind as it looked at them, confused by the sudden disappearance of its rider. He shimmered away into nothingness, leaving them all gaping in astonishment with the final proof of what he told them. Until now, the concept of time travel and alternate universes had an unreality about it.
As Darien Lambert disappeared before their eyes, the world expanded for all of them. They would never speak of what they saw today, choosing to interpret the extraordinary events in their own personal way. The world for them would never quite feel the same. It would go on in familiar patterns, but they would all know the existence of things unseen and how it could affect everything.****
"Are you coming up to the infirmary or not?" Nathan Jackson eyed Vin Tanner critically.
Although Vin had broken some ribs less than a week earlier, Nathan was unable to get the tracker back for a further examination. With all the activity Vin was forced to do after sustaining the injury, riding from one end of the Territory to the other, fleeing pursuit, Nathan was concerned the ribs might need additional treatment. Unfortunately, convincing Vin of this, was a feat in itself.
"I told you, Nathan," Vin said in that quiet manner of his. "I don't need any more doctoring."
Except for Chris Larabee and Ezra Standish, the seven were aiding with the repairs to the saloon. At the moment, Vin was more concerned about conducting repairs to a broken table rather than his own ribs. A situation that did not at all please the healer.
"I ain't gonna let you slither out of this Vin." Nathan continued to persist when suddenly, his gaze moved up the steps, where Ezra was currently making his way down followed by Alex who seemed almost as perturbed as Nathan.
"You've got to take it easy, Ezra," Alex said exasperated. "You have a cracked skull, you shouldn't be moving at all."
"My dear Alexandra," Ezra sighed as he descended, head still swathed in bandages. "I am capable of overseeing some of the work being conducted on this establishment. I will not leave it in the hands of these heathens."
"Why thank you Ezra," Josiah remarked from where he was mending the bullet holes in the walls with a mixture of mortar. "I knew you'd appreciate the help."
"No offence intended," Ezra said in that charming manner of his, although the effect was not as dramatic in his current condition. "I simply meant you lack the necessary refinement to envision this place in the grandeur I do."
Alex met Josiah's gaze, and they both rolled their eyes in shared sarcasm.
"I got better things to do than clean up here you know," JD added with similar annoyance.
The young man was currently sweeping out the debris covering almost every inch of floor space inside the saloon. Everything from glass shards, to plaster and splinters of wood, made up the heap, which was now his responsibility to clean. Pushing a broom was not the most exciting way for JD to spend an afternoon, especially after hearing Ezra’s sniping.
"I told Casey I'd go up and help her on the farm for a few days until Nettie's on her feet."
"Don't worry," Alex glared at Ezra for his rudeness. "When I get him back upstairs, I'll try to replace the part of his brain that lets him say exactly what's on his mind."
"If you get him back up at all," Josiah said with a smile. "Counting today, it's been almost four days since Ezra's had a decent game of cards. Didn't you tell me you wanted some challenge in your poker?"
Alex frowned and stared at him with an accusing eye. "I've been playing cards with you!"
Ezra looked at Josiah through narrowed eyes while the preacher wore a satisfied smirk before turning back to the wall he was currently working on. "Now Alexandra," Ezra started to explain amidst JD's laughter in the background. "Mr Sanchez may have misinterpreted my meaning."
"I'll bet. You can make it up to me if you go back upstairs for a few more days."
"I am not that apologetic. What is it with you healers? Rest is for the weary. I am not weary nor in any need of further medical aid."
"You said it." Vin agreed, meeting Nathan's gaze as if to prove the point he was not going to any infirmary to have any ribs examined again. As far as he was concerned, he was well and truly on the mend.
Nathan stood up and went to Alex.
"I've got a plan." He stared at the young doctor who merely nodded, instantly knowing what Nathan intended.
"I'm with you." She answered with her arms folded, staring at both impossible patients with a set look about her. "You get Ezra upstairs, and I will take care of Mr Tanner's ribs."
"A nice neat trade." Nathan grinned as he took a step towards Ezra, who knew the healer was not above slinging him over his shoulder if necessary.
"Wait a minute…" Vin replied as he saw Alex taking a step forward in his direction. He was not letting her put her hands anywhere on his body. No matter how much he might enjoy the sensation.
"You have another suggestion?" Alex met the tracker's gaze and then shifted to Ezra's.
Ezra and Vin exchanged glances before Vin stood up a second later and turned towards Nathan. "Let's go." He replied, unabashed in his resentment. The healer could only grin as he followed the reluctant tracker through the swing doors.
"Shall we?" Alex offered Ezra her sweetest smile as she waited for him to move.
"You have won this round." He returned with a frown. "I assure you, you will not win the next."
"Whatever," she shook her head and received looks of sympathy from both Josiah and JD respectively as they started slowly towards the stairs again. "What shall we play? Go fish or old maid?"
"Oh God….' Ezra could only groan. "I have died and gone to hell."****
Buck Wilmington was quiet throughout all this. He was deep in thought, his mind still wondering about the possibilities Darien Lambert's presence opened for him. For the first time in his life, Buck looked at his future seriously. He knew now he would marry and have children someday. At least Buck hoped he was married first. He could not help wondering if, in all his sexual encounters, he had already sown the seeds for Darien's existence. Or was he yet to do so?
He worked on the bar quietly, contemplating deep thoughts about all the women he slept throughout his life, wondering if he ever left any of them in a family way without his knowing. There were so many, it was hard to place a name to every one of them. He wished he could have been able to find out from Darien for certain but it was impossible now. Besides, he still believed that some part of his future ought to surprise him.
"You're quiet." Inez broke into those silent thoughts from the other end of the counter, where she was at present, clearing the broken bottles and replacing them with new stock.
Buck looked up at her, distracted. "I guess. I was just thinking."
"About Darien?" She guessed accurately. Inez could not deny seeing two men with the exact same face was disconcerting, especially when they were so different.
"How did you guess?"
"If I met a relative from the future, I would be a little lost in thought as well." She offered him an understanding smile.
"He was very different, wasn't he?" Buck sighed, wondering if he could have been the same way if circumstances were different.
"A lot of things shaped his life Buck," Inez pointed out. She saw the expression on Buck's face and found herself adding. "Although I thought he was a bit straight and narrow for me. I would have liked him to be a little louder." She offered him one of those smiles that could melt him where he stood.
"Does that mean we can do a little something tonight?" He waggled his brows at her.
"Hold your horses, Senor." She said with that stern voice of hers indicating he had gone too far again. "I didn't mean that as an invitation."
One of these days, Buck suspected, he would not go too far, and it was a day he looked forward to with great anticipation.
"You wound me, darling." He grinned, feeling a little better. He did so hope Darien Lambert was going to be a product of their relationship. Whenever he looked at Inez, he always had a feeling it was meant to be, if such things were possible.
"WILMINGTON!" A loud voice tore through the bar. Buck's eyes followed the sound to the doors and found his eyes widening at the sight of Jasper Cray, glaring at him.
"Oh shit!" Buck swore as he saw the hulk coming towards him.
"The back door is open!" Inez suggested quickly, pointing him in the direction of her kitchen. Buck gave her a hasty kiss on the cheek before bolting for dear life. No sooner had he began running than Jasper Cray was rumbling after him.
"I'M NOT DONE WITH YOU WILMINGTON!"
Inez shook her head and thought with a sigh that he was a rogue, but he was her rogue.
God was having a lot of fun at her expense.****
Today she woke up and decided she was going to live.
For a while there, Mary Travis had not been so sure. They returned to Four Corners last night, even though she was very sore, and Chris had not at all been eager to let her make the trip. However, Mary would risk the journey because she needed to be at home, and after some convincing by Alex, who liked the idea even less but understood the need was therapeutic, convinced Chris it was the best thing for her.
It was funny, Mary thought on the ride back. Two years ago, she believed her life to be devoid of people, even though there were many faces. Now there was Chris, Inez, who was her best friend and Alex who was fast becoming another. Suddenly, her son was not the sole member of her family any more. Her circle was expanding.
Chris was right, she was never alone.
She mourned the child that might have been, and she was far from recovered at its loss, but she could accept there would be more children in her future, Darien told her so. If anything, this child proved to her just how much she had by its loss, not how little. Inside, Mary prayed there was a heaven, and her little baby was there at this moment, doing all the things stolen before its life even began. Wherever it was, she hoped it knew the sparkle of magic it brought to her life and its father's, even briefly.
As far as Four Corners was concerned, a terrible outlaw now captured by the seven was responsible for her injuries. No one outside the circle knew about the baby, not even Nettie and Casey. Mary preferred it remained that way. She wanted her grief to be private, so she returned home to the safety of her house to hide away until she was ready to face the world again.
Both Inez and Alex had come by earlier, even Nathan dropped in to see how she was faring. If it was not for the impropriety of it, Mary might have been tempted to let Chris remain in the house with her, reputation be damned.
It was not something he would allow her to sacrifice, no matter how defeated she felt. Thus, her best friends had made themselves available because Chris was in little shape to do much himself, considering what the gunslinger endured to kill that metal monstrosity. Mary knew he was shot at least twice, had a dislocated shoulder and numerous cuts and bruises he received after jumping from a moving train.
It was late morning when Chris finally made his appearance. He was staying at the saloon while he was convalescing, and she knew after the hard ride yesterday, he would probably sleep in. Mary remembered their exchange at the Indian village and how Chris tried to remain at her side every day since the seven's return from Eagle Bend. It warmed her inside to know he was not lying when he told her she would not endure this sorrow alone.
For she knew in his own way, he grieved for their child too.
She remained in bed most of the morning with no real inclination to leave it when she heard Chris tapping at the door to her bedroom. Stil, in her nightgown, Mary saw him peering through the doorway with an uncertain expression on his face.
"You can come in." She sighed, meeting his gaze with a shadowy smile.
With everything else she was feeling, Mary was in no mood for Chris treating her like a porcelain doll. True, she felt fragile, but she needed him more than anyone else now and was somewhat surprised he still believed he could hurt her by his mere presence. In Mary's opinion, when a man fought a mechanical beast from the future by becoming the worm at the end of a hook, it gave the woman in his life an idea about his reliability.
He could be so thick sometimes.
"I missed you.”
Chris dropped his duster on a chair as he entered the room, limping slightly. She could not see the bandages but knew that his arm and shoulder were still tender from his injuries. He moved forward a little stiffer than usual before coming towards the edge of her bed. Instinctively, Mary slid over as she had done numerous times when he slipped in the covers in the dead of night. He took the gesture as an invitation to join her. Chris nestled into a comfortable position allowing her to rest her head against his chest while accommodating her broken arm.
"How are you feeling Mary?" He asked quietly, breathing the heavenly scent of her hair into his lungs. It was not so long ago on that terrible ride from Eagle Bend, he believed he lost her forever. Chris was never more grateful for anything than when he found she was still alive.
"I'm okay." She assured him softly, drawing more comfort from his warmth next to her than anything else at this moment. What was this power he had over her? Mary was sometimes at a loss to understand how merely being with him could be so fulfilling, even in the face of such terrible loss. "I'll be up and around in a few days, Alex tells me."
"That's not what I asked." He answered, stroking the golden strands of her hair. It soothed her to no end and allowed her to drift away.
"I know." She admitted a little guiltily. "I feel like we've lost something precious, something that comes only once in a lifetime."
He raised her chin and looked at her. "We did lose something precious Mary," he agreed, deciding he would not lie to her. "But it's not the end of the world, and someday, we may find it again."
"I keep thinking of all the things the baby might have been." She tried to keep her emotions from descending her into another fit of tears. She had not really stopped crying for any length of time in days. Each time, such thoughts came to mind, it also brought the full torrent of sorrow back with mind-numbing clarity. She knew it was natural that such feelings would not disappear overnight, and it would take time to heal, but she hated being so vulnerable. It was not what she was about.
"Me too," Chris whispered, thinking about the child who would remain nameless forever. "I keep thinking about how much like you I would like it to have been. I was thinking of a little girl with your hair." He looked at the flaxen strands in his fingers and relished its feel against his skin. He felt a pang of grief and pleasure at the same time and wondered how such paradoxes could exist.
"Or a boy with your eyes." She added sadly, biting her lip to suppress her tears.
"It will happen someday, Mary." Chris held her close. "I promise you."
And as they lay there together, watching the blue sky outside her window, Mary was almost ready to believe him because Chris was right about one thing.
The future was not set. It was what they made of it.*****
7th February 1997 – 7 am EST
Darien Lambert found himself peering through the picture window of the florist shop called Sarah's Place in the same location he left it only a short week ago. She was working behind the counter with her roses and her petunias, creating a display no doubt destined for someone who liked the scent of both.
She looked no different than she had the first moment he laid eyes on her, trimming rose stems while dreaming of things not so mundane in her hazel eyes. The sadness remained, but so was the picture of John Connor hanging on the wall behind her. Everything inside the place appeared as it did the first time he saw it and the only question burning in his mind was whether she would remember him.
Time righted itself because Darien returned to an empty warehouse in the middle of the Nevada desert. Instead of returning to the same time as when he left, it was a full week since his journey to the nineteenth century. Darien realized Sahmbi planned it this way to give himself ample time to remove the TRAX control device and all his operations to a different location.
Sahmbi kept his word to bring Darien home to the twentieth century as promised, but he was not about to risk Darien knowing any more than necessary about his business. Darien did not mind really. After his days in the past, he had no intention of embarking on another ordeal trying to bring his arch-nemesis to justice. In fact, when he finally managed to get a ride to the nearest town, since Sahmbi had not left him any transportation to get back to civilization upon his return, all Darien was interested in was a shower and Chinese takeaway.
He needed real food and his sneakers.
Upon satisfying those first two essential requirements, Darien ordered Selma to give him a current report on the status of Miles Bennett Dyson. If Dyson still lived, then whatever they did in Four Corners was for nothing. Skynet might still bring about Judgement Day in a scant six months.
It was almost with a held breath Darien learnt Miles Dyson died three years before at the Cyberdyne building. Through the same network he used to contact Sahmbi earlier, Darien sent the doctor the message their temporary partnership had succeeded. The timeline was restored and the twenty-second century should be similarly intact.
He sent that message and another informing Sahmbi the détente between them was over. Their cat and mouse game would resume as soon as he took care of some personal business. To ensure the twenty-second century was where he left it, Darien communicated with his commander through the classifieds. The next day, he found a lone cigar in the ladies room of the Smithsonian with an attached note.
CAN'T YOU BUY YOUR OWN?
So now he was standing outside the window of the florist shop in Reseda, staring at Sarah Connor and her flowers.
"Captain," Selma spoke up. "You have been standing here for three minutes already."
"I'm picking my moment" he hissed at her quietly. "Since when were you my alarm clock?"
Suddenly, a new voice interrupted them by clearing its throat.
Sarah Connor was standing before him, looking at Darien with an expression on her face he could only call annoyed. With a sinking feeling, he realized she did not recognize him and that discovery, hurt more than it should have. Darien supposed he should not be surprised. The possibility loomed in his mind even though he did not want to entertain it. Perhaps, he could get to know her again, without a crisis in time hampering their relationship…
Sarah's hands went to her hips as she let out a sigh and met his gaze critically.
"You just going to stand there gawking at me or are you going to come in and tell me where the hell you've been all week, Darien?"
"Sarah?" Darien stammered once he understood she knew exactly who he was. According to the date, it was about a week since they shared dinner together. With his disappearance and everything, she was naturally upset, considering what he told her about Skynet. He was so pleased she knew who he was Darien did not even care if Sarah was mad at him.
She was staring at him impatiently, trying to decide why he was lingering outside her door like a tourist. Probably trying to find some way of explaining where he had disappeared to all week. She hoped he had a very good excuse. Despite herself, she had a good feeling about Darien Lambert, no matter how strange he could sometimes be. They were strangers in time, and Sarah liked the idea of having someone who understood what she had been through in her life. Since his absence, she tried not to assume the worst, a Terminator had killed him. However, his being here now seemed to disprove that theory.
"You know," she shook her head, wondering what his strange behaviour was all about. "You really shouldn't talk to that thing in public. Someone might lock you up."
Darien Lambert could only grin as he followed her inside convinced, at last, he had finally come home.
Next Story: Julia
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