It had been nearly three weeks since they had successfully destroyed the new Cyberdyne facility and hopefully ended the Skynet project. John Connor and Dieter von Rossbach had spent the time fleeing southward; by jet aircraft, private plane, truck, riverboat. . . and now on foot through the jungle.
Like travelling through time, John Connor thought as he slashed through another damned something-like-a-banana plant, flicking aside the big, wet leaves with his machete.
His arms no longer actually hurt, but his chest and shoulders burned from the constant effort. Guess I won't have to worry about staying buff anytime soon. He remembered to shift hands, using his left a little more than his right. That kept the calluses and the muscles balanced, and it never hurt to improve your coordination with the weaker hand.
They'd wandered from the twenty-first century through the twentieth and the nineteenth. And now we're back at the dawn of man, John thought, spitting as something bug-ish hit him in the mouth and sneezing at the smell of pungent sap. He forced his way through the gap he'd created, slashed again, took another three steps, slashed. . .
It would be good to stop for a while; it would be even better when they finally found the trail. He kept his eyes lowered most of the time, flicking his glance upward towards the multiple canopies above now and then. You got a blinding headache if you didn't do that occasionally; just staring at the endless succession of vines and fronds and branches and spindly ground-story saplings at head level was bad for you.
It was one of the tricks of jungle travel his mother and her succession of boyfriend-instructors had taught him before he was ten. That was back when he was in the first, little-kid, phase of believing in Skynet and Judgment Day and his mission to save humanity from the machines.
A little while after that he'd turned ten and joined the majority, convinced that his mother was a total weirdo and deserved to be in the booby hatch -- which was where she'd been at the time, caught trying to blow up a computer factory. He'd been stranded with foster parents when she was caught: he'd always privately called the pair The Bundys From Hell.
Not that they'd deserved what happened to them. For a few seconds, Todd and Janelle had gotten uncontrovertable proof that a mad supercomputer in the future really was sending back human-looking murder machines; in fact, the proof was the last thing they ever saw. A little while after that, he'd met his first Terminator and started believing his mother again -- the way people believed in rocks, trees and taxes, because he'd experienced it, and seen the bodies the Terminators left behind.
He remembered Miles Dyson's face as the Terminator peeled the skin off its arm, revealing the metal skeleton beneath. Dyson, fated to be the creator of Skynet, hadn't lived long after that revelation. It seemed that just knowing about Terminators was dangerous to your health.
That made him a lot more appreciative of what his mother had gone through, but it also ended up dropping him in shit like this. John was genuinely tired of running for his life.
They'd won the fight in LA, killing the quasi-metal cyborg Skynet had sent back in time to protect its own beginnings, and they'd blown up the resurrected Skynet project. Which had been put together with Dyson's secretly stored files.
Great. Wonderful victory. Except that mom got wrecked so bad we had to leave her, and now every anti-terrorist in the world knows the 'mad-dog Connors' are back, killing people and blowing up all their toys again. Our little Paraguayan idyll is probably blown, but good -- they may be after Dieter too. Sheesh. If this is victory. . .
No. He stopped at that thought. Defeat meant he died; and if he died, as far as they knew, the human race would cease to exist. It was John Connor who'd led -- would lead humanity to victory in the post-Judgement-Day future. What was madness for megalomaniacs was plain truth for him.
He was so important that his mother had sacrificed the better part of her life, and briefly her sanity, to train and protect him.
But how do you stay sane when your son had been sired by a man from the future, sent back by his own older self (the one he privately thought of as The Great Military Leader Dickhead) to protect her. Kyle Reese had ended up falling in love with her and died saving her life. Later Skynet sent another Terminator, a T-1000, to kill him, and the Great Military Dickhead sent back a captured, reprogrammed T-101 to protect him so that he could grow up to send back --
"Thinking about time travel makes my head hurt," John snarled.
"Time travel brought your parents together," Dieter said over his shoulder as naturally as if the comment hadn't come out of left field.
No, Skynet and I will bring my parents together. Like a pair of homicidal matchmakers. John shook his head. What I've always wondered is how do I get cold enough to send my own father to his death?
"Yeah," he said to distract himself, "keep a good thought."
At least they had a friend in Jordan Dyson, Miles' brother, who, even more reluctantly, but just as violently, had learned the unbelievable truth about Skynet. Now he was watching over Sarah as she lay helpless, perhaps dying in the hospital. Keep a good thought, he admonished himself sternly. She's not alone. And how often had that been the case in her chaotic life?
The Amazonian jungle wasn't really stiflingly hot. The temperature never got much above eighty or so, with all the layers of shade above. The problem was that it wasn't just humid; the air was fully saturated and absolutely still, and unless perspiration ran or dripped off you, it stayed. Sweat slicked his whole body, making him feel like he'd been dipped in canola oil and left to go rancid, chafing anywhere belt or back-pack or equipment touched his body; and if you got a rash here, sure as Skynet made Terminators to kill people, it would get infected.
He hated feeling this wet and dirty. John would have sworn it hadn't felt this bad the first time he'd been through here. Maybe it wasn't as hot that year, he thought. He'd hate to think he'd become a fussy old lady at seventeen.
John stopped, chopped the machete halfway into a tree trunk and yanked off the scarf he'd tied around his forehead. He wrung out the sweat and glanced behind. Dieter von Rossbach moved forward with the determination of a machine.
A machine he just happens to resemble, John thought with a quirk of his lips. Even now, after knowing the big man for several weeks, he still couldn't get over Dieter's resemblance to a Terminator.
In fact it was the other way 'round: Skynet had used Dieter's face and form to "flesh-out" the T-101 series of killing machines. When it decided to put living skin on its robots it scanned old files looking for faces that fit the thing's profile, literally. And there was Dieter von Rossbach.
John and von Rossbach traded off point every hour, but he knew the big Austrian could go through this jungle like a mowing machine if he wanted to. He was just being polite, letting John take on some of the burden.
Dieter came up and stopped beside him. "If we stand still the mosquitos will eat us alive," he remarked.
John quirked an eyebrow.
"I haven't noticed that they leave us alone when we're moving."
Waving a hand before his face Dieter said, "Yah, but at least they don't stroll up your nose."
John took a slug from his canteen. Important to keep hydrated. The fact that you felt like you were swallowing a diffuse mist of hot dishwater every time you sucked in a breath didn't matter, nor the fact that the sweat stayed on your skin and didn't cool you at all. Water still had to be replaced.
"We'll reach the trail sometime between now and sundown," he said. "But trails can change or disappear completely around here in six years." The Amazonian rain forest was notorious for its ability to absorb the works of man.
"So, we keep heading south," Dieter said, moving forward. He looked at the GPS unit strapped to his left forearm, reached over his shoulder, drew the machete and lopped off a soft-bodied trunk with the same economical motion. "We'll get there eventually."
John watched him go with a sigh. Yeah, well, if we keep going south we'll hit Tierra del Fuego eventually. Whether they'd get there in one piece or not was the question. At least the climate's better in Tierra del Fuego.
When he and his mother had followed this trail six years ago they'd succeeded in vanishing from the face of the earth as far as law enforcement was concerned. But they'd had a guide, which meant they didn't disappear for real.
Lorenzo was still in business but he flat refused to go through this section of jungle anymore. He'd sat on his portal by the river, cleaning his gun and shaking his head stubbornly.
"Those gold miners are out of control down there. They kill anybody they find, no questions asked. You know? Everybody there they gone a little loco. They kill the indios, the indios, some of 'em, kill 'em back. Kill any white man they see. They're so mad they even think I'm white." He'd grinned up at John, teeth flashing white in his mahogany face.
"I'm sorry boy, but I won't go there, not for love or money." He'd pointed a tobacco stained finger at John. "You shouldn't go there either."
Like we had a choice, John thought. It's not like we can buy a first class ticket and fly home to Asuncion.
Not if they wanted to disappear as thoroughly as they needed to. Though the authorities might like them to try.
He screwed the cap back on the canteen and levered his machete out of the tree, then he started off down the trail in Dieter's energetic wake. The Austrian made a much wider path than John did. It was kind of embarrassing; Dieter was his mothers's age. At least. He even thought they had a bit of a thing for each other, which was funny in a gross sort of way.
John sometimes wished he didn't have so much to live up to. In a way it wasn't fair. He not only had his future, fabulous, Great Military Dickhead self to measure himself against, but his mom was superwoman and Dieter, well. . . Dieter was in a class by himself. He sighed. Other kids his age could be comfortably contemptuous of their elders. That was sooo not available to him.
Be nice though, he thought. For a moment he daydreamed a life where his mother was a clueless, overweight lady who baked cookies for his friends and worried vaguely that he might be getting into drugs, or that his girl friend was a bad influence. In that life his greatest problem would be just saying no to all the temptations that youth is heir to.
On the other hand that could be really boring. Certainly a lot of the guys at school who had just that lifestyle were; both bored and boring. He might currently be hot and grubby and mosquito bitten to within an inch of his life, but he wasn't bored. Though if things stayed as quiet as they currently were. . .
He was kidding himself, of course; things were far from quiet. At the back of his mind, with an almost palpable weight, was his endless worry over his mother. It had been days since he'd been able to get any information on her condition. Last he'd heard she was stable. Which was much too ambiguous for comfort. Not that he didn't keep trying to find some in that lame word. Stable was good when you'd been shot several times and stabbed and lost most of your internal fluids.
Well you're all alone/When the bullet hits the bone. Truer words had never been sung.
I wonder how she is, he thought. He also wondered what they -- the black-ops types who were probably Cyberdyne's link to the government -- were going to do to her. John suspected that the people running Cyberdyne's security were so covert they could not only kill you, they could erase you. He couldn't stop the thought from occurring, but refused to dwell on it.
Couldn't fix it from here, he thought. Couldn't fix it from there either. He whacked some vegetation viciously with the machete. So why do I feel like a piddling little coward?
He remembered the Infiltrator, a female, astonishingly small compared to the Terminators he'd known, saw again the blood dripping from its blond hair, the outline of its shattered head. That model was mostly cloned human tissue, not flesh over a metal skeleton like the T-101's. Undoubtedly made that way so they'd be better at fooling people into thinking they were human.
In nightmares he still saw it -- dead, organically dead but still moving -- strike his mother with a knife-hand blow that went into her gut like a bowie knife, still heard Sarah's cry of agony as she folded and fell to the floor, a long, endless fall.
Then, in his dreams, things seemed to speed up until everything moved at an impossible rate. They ran up stairs, ran in and out of the building, watched the night blossom into flame as they set off the bombs that destroyed Cyberdyne once again. Stopping Skynet, once again.
His mother had been unconscious the last time he saw her, looking so small and helpless beside Miles Dyson. There had been no chance of saying goodbye, no hope that she would wake, and at the time, little hope that she would survive.
But he'd done what she'd trained him to do. He'd turned his back, put the mission first and left her in the hands of a stranger. And though he felt ashamed, he knew that Sarah Connor would be proud.
I don't want this! he thought with a flash of outrage. Then he smiled wryly. I guess that's one of the many things Mom and I have in common.
Suddenly Dieter held up a hand and John froze, looking ahead to where the former commando was staring. Then John saw it too; a brightening between the trees, as if the olive-green gloom lightened ahead of them. The vegetation thickened in that direction too, no longer partially shaded out by the upper stories; now it looked more like Hollywood's conception of a rain-forest jungle, so thick that nobody could move far through it.
He moved quietly up beside von Rossbach and listened. In a few moments, as the two men stood still, birds and insects began to make their myriad noises again.
John and Dieter looked at each other. No other humans around then, or the wildlife would have stayed quiet. At least the ones in their immediate vicinity would have. Dieter signaled that they should split up but stay within sight of one another and approach the brighter patch of forest; John had learned military sign-language about the time he was toilet-trained. The younger man nodded his understanding and moved off into the undergrowth.
Yup, it's the trail all right, John thought after a few minutes. He glanced at von Rossbach and they wordlessly agreed to wait a few moments before venturing further. When the jungle had once again returned to full cry Dieter nodded and stepped out onto the trail.
"It's bigger than it used to be," John said, walking carefully up to the Austrian over the slickly muddy ground. "Almost a road now."
"I doubt the indians did it," von Rossbach said flicking a hand at some tire tracks in the mud. "Unless they drive those little all-terrain buggies."
"Not likely," John said, shaking his head. He remembered the local tribesmen and women as perfectly willing to accept rides, but showing no great desire to learn to drive themselves.
Dieter's head came up and John was already looking down the trail to where a faint noise disturbed the wilderness. Then they faded into the jungle as one, weapons at the ready. The only thing coming down that trail would be trouble, whether miners or Indians.
A group of five men came into view, unshaven and with the skinny muscularity of manual work and bad diet; they were in tattered shorts and shirts, several with bandanas tied around their heads. All of them carried machetes, and two of them had pistols at their waists. With them was an Indian, his hands bound behind his back in a way that must have been agony, blood streaming down his face from a cut on his forehead and what looked like a broken nose. He was an athletic-looking man in early middle age with bowl-cropped raven hair and a few tattoos, naked save for a breechclout.
One of his captors idly thwacked at the thick greenery beside the trail with his machete, casting an occasional angry glance at their captive's battered, impassive face.
"Hey, Teodoro, why can't we just kill him?" he suddenly burst out in Brazilian-Portugese.
The angry man's voice had an undertone of some other accent, and his hair was sandy-colored. John's mind ticked him off as from southern Brazil, one of areas settled by Germans or Italians or East Europeans during the last century. The others were typical Brazilians in appearance, ranging from African to Mediterranean and mixtures in between.
A thickset man with his black hair tied in a little knob on top of his head sighed and threw an appealing glance up at the canopy above them; evidently as close to a leader as this bunch had.
"Raoul, for the thirty-third time, he's a chief, he's important, we keep him as a hostage and those fucking Indios stop killing us and stealing and breaking our equipment." He looked over his shoulder, one hand resting on his sidearm. "Did you hear me this time?"
Raoul answered him with a glare and a vicious swipe of his machete through a thick fibrous plant. One of the men gave the chief a hard shove and laughed as the Indian stumbled to his knees and then fell forward onto his face, helpless to break his fall. The others whooped and moved in, kicking and punching the man as he struggled to get back onto his feet. Teodoro sighed and rubbed his forehead.
"You better get up fast, chief," he said. "they're just gonna keep on kickin' otherwise."
John looked at Dieter, outrage in his eyes. But the big man shook his head. This wasn't their fight, they were just passing through. Getting involved here wouldn't further their own agenda, in fact it might stop it cold if John got killed in some misguidedly noble effort to save the captive. And Sarah would never forgive him.
The younger man lifted his mini-Uzi and tipped his head towards the trail. Dieter tightened his lips impatiently and shook his head again. The Austrian signaled that they would hold their positions. It visibly puzzled John and he frowned gesturing toward the brutal scene on the trail directly in front of them, his face pleading. Dieter signed that they would hold their places and signaled for silence.
John turned his head away and glared at what was happening on the trail. Von Rossbach could almost feel him seething.
Then, without warning the boy stepped onto the road and fired off a few rounds.
"Mao em cima!" he bellowed in execrable Portugese.
Instead of freezing Raoul flung his machete at John's head. John stepped back, leaning to the side to avoid it and his feet slid out from under him in the mud. He went down flat on his back his arms flung wide and the nearest miner threw himself forward, grabbing John's gun hand in a grip like a mangle. Connor threw a punch at the man's head, bringing up his knee to slam it into his captor's side. The man grunted and tried to elbow John in the throat.
As the group of miners shouted encouragement to their friend and insults at John they moved forward, abandoning their previous victim.
Dieter exploded from the jungle like a beast out of legend. Von Rossbach kicked the first man he reached hard enough to fling him across the muddy trail where he landed in a heap and didn't move again. Reaching out von Rossbach grabbed one of them by the hair and with a quick flex of the massive arms and shoulders flung him at a tree beside the trail.
John heard the "thok!" even in the heat of his own fight and threw another punch into his opponent's bloodied face with a feeling of satisfaction. Knew he'd come around to my point of view, he thought. The miner's grip on his gun hand slackened and Connor threw a final punch, twisting as the man fell over to get out from under his unconcious body.
He shook the mud from his gun and grimaced. I'm not gonna be using this till I clean it.
Another man who'd been advancing on John stared at Dieter in amazement for just a moment too long and the Austrian reached out, took two handsful of greasy hair and smashed the man's face down onto his uprising knee. The man Dieter had kicked had struggled to his feet and turned to run; von Rossbach took two long strides towards him.
John saw Teodoro yank his gun from its holster and he moved. As Dieter's victim dropped unconscious to the ground the Austrian spun to find John taking care of the fifth man.
The younger man's fingers were clamped down on the miner's carotid arteries as Teodoro pawed feebly at John's hands. The miner's eyes rolled back in his head and he dropped to the trail in an ungainly heap.
John smiled smugly at Dieter. There were other ways than brute strength to handle things.
"My mom taught me that," he said.
"Your relationship with your mother is a beautiful thing, John," Dieter said slapping him on the shoulder. Then he grabbed a handful of John's shirt and lifted him onto his toes, drawing him close. "If you ever disobey and order like that again," he snarled, eyes blazing, "I'll make what I did to these guys look like a kindergarden romp. Are you getting me, John?"
Connor had expected a reprimand, but the genuine ferocity of it startled him. He nodded, surprised. The big guy really cares, he thought, embarrassed and obscurely pleased. Who'da thunk it? Certainly he wouldn't have. His mother's previous friends sure hadn't and he was used to discounting any interest the men around her showed in him.
"Say it!" Dieter demanded, giving him a shake.
"I'm getting you," John said, some of his wonder leaking into his voice.
They stared at one another for a long moment, then von Rossbach let him go and turned toward the indian. He reached down to help the chief sit up.
"Are you all right?" the Austrian asked in Portuguese.
Instead of answering the native looked at him for a long moment before switching his glance to John, then climbed to his feet on his own. John racked his brain for anything useful he could say in Yamomani and came up blank. He'd only known a few words and that was six years ago.
Dieter looked the chief over as he cut his bonds and said, "I don't think he's badly hurt. The nose is the worst of it."
"Dieter," John said in a strained voice.
The Austrian looked up, his face going blank. From out of the jungle, up and down the trail, small, brown men glided, seeming to appear from thin air and jungle shadows. Every one of them was armed, some with the traditional bow, some with blowguns, some with cheap shotguns bought from traders. Their faces, like their chief's were impassive, but their eyes were angry.
The chief snapped at them and they reluctantly lowered their weapons, keeping their eyes on the white men. With a glance at the unconscious miners he spoke a few words and his tribesmen looked pleased; a few even went so far as to smile. As one they moved forward and stripped the miners bare, then slapped them awake and tied them together in a circle, facing outward.
"What are you going to do with them?" John asked in Portuguese.
The chief slowly smiled, not a pleasant smile.
"They walk home," he said, moving his hand like a crippled spider. "Go slow."
John and Dieter looked at one another, puzzled. Barefoot on this trail wouldn't be a treat for the miners, but it didn't seem to make up for the abuse the man had received at their hands. The chief's smile turned truly evil.
"Marabunda," he whispered.
"In the Rio Negra," von Rossbach muttered.
"Hunh?" John said.
"Old movie reference," Dieter explained. "Marabunda are army ants. They can be very destructive when they're on the move, sort of like land-going piranha."
"Marabunda cross trail," the chief said, gesturing up the trail where the miners had been pushing him. "Marabunda move very slow. White mens move very slow." He moved his hand in the spider gesture again, then he speeded it up. "Or maybe they dance very fast."
He laughed, then nodded at his people, who whacked the miners on their legs with the flats of their machetes and got them stumbling down the trail. They hooted their derision as their prisoners stumbled and fell, one man's pale legs kicking in midair as the ones underneath cursed and shouted at him to get off of them. The Indians slapped them with their machetes or threw small stones to get them up and moving.
"They're not going to get eaten, are they?" he asked.
The chief laughed outright at that.
"They stand still, si. But they no stand still, they run." He wiped the blood from his face and turned to follow his men. "You come see?" he invited.
"We must go," John pointed down the trail in the opposite direction.
The chief nodded. "You are friends," he said. He called out and a man came running. "This Ifykoro," the chief said. "He guide. You go safe from our lands."
"Thank you," Dieter said simply, and John nodded.
The chief smiled and turned away. Lifting his bow their guide took off down the trail at a jog. With a weary glance at one another von Rossbach and John followed him. Just before a loop in the trail that would take them out of sight John looked over his shoulder.
The Indians were enjoying themselves, harrying the miners and chanting abuse. John smiled; for all their anger they weren't really hurting their victims. I wonder how Skynet will handle these people.
Here in the depths of the rain forest they might not suffer too much from the initial nuclear attack, and they might hang on for years before any of the machines came along to harvest them.
John winced at the thought. He liked these people, he remembered them from when he was ten; as long as you didn't get into a blood feud, they were honest. They were among the few human beings on earth who could make that claim. Except it would never occur to them to make it.
They deserve to live in peace, he thought, and to die in their own time. And he would work, for the rest of his life, to see that they could.
John nibbled carefully at the hot skewer of grilled pirarucu -- a huge Amazonian fish -- that he'd bought at a stall. He looked around and let out a contented sigh. The chaos of a South American market place felt like a homecoming to him. He'd grown up in places like this, eating food like this.
In fact he'd haunted this very market when he was ten and they'd spent three months here after coming out of the jungle while his mom got it together. Which was how he found out a number of things that were very helpful to his mother.
He wandered down an alley, taking a bigger bite of the fish on his skewer. God this was good! He'd missed the taste of pirarucu.
He could also have helped Dieter, had Dieter thought to ask him. But the big guy had told him to stay put, like he was some little kid, and had gone out. Naturally John followed him. He watched von Rossbach approach a modest palacete not far from this very alley. Watched as two-bullet headed thugs had held a gun on him and searched him. Really searched him, not an easy once over like you see in the movies; these guys had all but brought out the rubber gloves.
That's what you get for going to visit Lazaro Garmendia without an appointment, Dieter, John thought.
Garmendia was the area's foremost mob boss; his specialty was smuggling, though he tended to avoid drugs. There were vague rumors about a nasty run-in with some Columbians -- no one knew any details. But he'd do pretty well anything else for money, though he preferred it to be illegal, immoral, or sadistic.
A very scary guy and terribly sensitive about his perks. You showed him respect or he showed you what for. John didn't think von Rossbach had even thought to bring Garmendia a gift. Bad sess, Dieter.
He stopped in front of a slight recess in a blank wall and gobbled the last of his fish, then he broke the stick and put it in his pocket. Let's see if I remember how this goes, he thought. John bent down and studied the left edge of the recess. Yep, there it was. A pebble projected from the rough stucco that made up the coating on the wall. John pressed on it. There was a click and a very slight line of darkness appeared where there had been a solid joint. He turned to the right and found a similar pebble up high, almost beyond his reach, he pushed that one too and with a gust of cool, musty air a door fell open a crack. John pushed it open further and entered the moist darkness within. Mom would want him to save the former Sector agent from himself.
"Look, Lazaro, I'm offering you first rate security in exchange for a ride home. We'll help with the driving and even provide our own food."
Dieter sat at ease in Lazaro Garmendia's office, ignoring the many weapons hidden on the persons of Garmendia and his discreetly hovering associates; trying less successfully to ignore his increasing irritation.
The Brazilian mobster looked von Rossbach over skeptically, moving a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other by rolling it between his lips. An overhead fan made ineffectual efforts to stir the air; it was just as humid as it had been in the rainforest, but with less greenery between them and the sun it was much hotter. The thick hazy air was crackling with diesel fumes as well, and a shanty-town stink intruded even into this enclave of wealth. The Austrian tried to ignore the décor, which ran to expensive knickknacks and electronic gadgets, plus several pictures of the sort you'd find in a very expensive Rio cathouse.
Dieter and John, having successfully marched through the rain forest to Porto Velho, now needed transport back to Paraguay; preferably transport that couldn't be traced and didn't involve showing papers. All that slogging through the bugs and muck shouldn't be wasted by announcing their presence in this unlikely spot by drawing enough cash from their bank accounts to buy or rent a vehicle. But he had no intention of walking home.
More than at any time since his retirement Dieter missed the Sector's endless resources; cash or a new identity on demand, or both. Still, his work with the Sector had left him with a head full of useful contacts. When he'd first thought of taking advantage of Garmendia's underground trucking network it had seemed like the ideal solution.
"I am to believe that when you left the Sector, señor, you left it so completely as to join the other side?" Garmendia tipped his head, one grey eyebrow raised. "I think maybe you should take the bus. No?"
"No," Dieter said looking into the depths of his drink. "First, I'd like to get there in my own lifetime, second," he raised a brow, "your people are more. . . sub rosa, so to speak."
The smuggler shrugged. "Si, much more so than a bus." He narrowed his eyes. "So, what are you prepared to pay?"
"I'm disappointed that you think so little of my skills as a guard that you would ask for additional compensation." One side of the Austrian's mouth lifted in a sardonic smile. "Perhaps I am insulted."
"Perhaps this is a sting," Garmendia responded. He spread well-manicured hands and shrugged. "If I risk losing an entire cargo I would be a fool not to try to recoup my losses beforehand. No?"
"This is not a sting, Lazaro," Dieter said, he took another sip of his drink. "I could arrange a sting, or even several if you like," he went on. "Then you could see the difference between men trying to put you in jail and an old friend asking a favor."
"Ah, we are old friends now? I don't remember the friendship part of our acquaintance. The freeze! And don't move or we shoot!, those I remember much better."
Von Rossbach leaned forward. "Because you tend to avoid smuggling drugs I've kept the authorities out of your pocket several times."
"I never knew that," Garmendia said, holding up his hands in mock amazement. "So you are implying that I owe you this favor."
"Several times over," Dieter ground out.
"I would still prefer to be paid." The smuggler shrugged. "It is only good business."
"Frankly I don't want to access my accounts while I'm out of the country," von Rossbach said.
Garmendia thoughtfully tapped his cigar out on a cut crystal ashtray.
"You think the Sector doesn't know you've been out of the country?" he asked with a lift of his shaggy brows.
The Austrian waved a big hand dismissively.
"Don't even try to guess what the Sector does or doesn't know," he advised.
"Or what I know that you don't want anybody else to know," John said.
The men turned in surprise to find Connor leaning casually against the wall.
"Who the fuck are you?" the smuggler demanded, tossing a glare at his men who belatedly unholstered their guns. "And how long have you been there?"
"I thought I told you to wait for me," Dieter growled.
John grinned. "Y'know, I think I do remember something like that." He ambled over to them, ignoring Garmendia's newly alert guards. "I've been here long enough to hear you trying to squeeze a little capital out of my friend here," he said to the mobster. He held out his hand. "John Connor, you must remember my mother, Sarah."
Dieter leaned back. He hadn't realized that John and Sarah knew Garmendia. It was only logical, he supposed; Sarah had been a smuggler, too, in a small way, since the Connors left the USA, and before that she had run guns for awhile.
After a tense moment von Rossbach decided to let John have his head, for the time being. The way he was handling himself allowed Dieter to relax a bit. Connor wasn't coming on cocky and teenage arrogant; he was cool and very much in control.
"You are that little boy? Where is your mother?" Lazaro asked, briefly shaking John's hand, then looking towards the door. "She is not with you? She is well?"
"It's kind of you to ask, Señor. My mother is well, thank you." At least I sincerely hope she is, John thought. He hadn't been able to get through to Jordan yet. "And no, she is not with us. She had. . . other business to attend to." Surviving, hopefully recovering, stuff like that.
"Ah!" Garmendia said with a satisfied smile and relaxed. "So she is not with you."
"Never fear," John said pleasantly, "she's with us in spirit."
The mobster shot a confused look at von Rossbach.
"So you two are together?" he said after a moment.
"Si," John agreed amiably.
"How very interesting," Garmendia murmured, settling back in his chair. He smiled at them through a cloud of cigar smoke. "And how unexpected."
Dieter was very unhappy with the look of unabashed greed that suddenly blossomed in Garmendia's eyes. He imagined the smuggler already had two or three information brokers in mind to whom he could sell the word of a former Sector agent's association with the notorious Sarah Connor. He wished John could have kept to their room. Damage control on this was going to prove very hard to apply.
John watched Garmendia relax in the predator's role, his fat swarthy face smug with the power he thought he held over them. This was another reason he hadn't wanted to deal with smuggling. A lot of these underworld types were so incredibly, childishly petty.
"So many of your old friends would be amazed to hear of it," Lazaro continued happily. His eyes glinted as he twisted the knife.
Dieter's face was impassive as he sipped his drink, but inside he was both worried and angry. Kids! he thought in frustration. They're too impatient and too unconcerned with consequences. He ought to have expected something like this, he'd trained enough youngsters, most of them not too many years older than John to know how troublesome they could be.
John laughed heartily and Lazaro Garmendia looked almost fondly at him.
And why not, von Rossbach thought sourly, he can wring a lot of money out of this situation.
"Si, Senhor Garmendia," John said after a moment, smiling widely. "My friend's former employers would probably be stunned to hear of it." His face and voice grew hard and serious. "But of course, they won't."
"And why is that, menino?" Garmendia asked with soft menace.
"Because my mother is here in spirit," John said. "And my mother knows many things." He waited a beat before leaning forward. "May I have a drink?"
The smuggler's complexion looked a bit yellower than it had a moment before, the way one does when going pale beneath a tan. His dark eyes had gone wary and it was a frozen moment before he responded to John's request. He snapped his fingers and a well built, well dressed young man hurried over.
"Coke," John said, looking up at him.
The man looked confused and glanced at his boss, as if for confirmation of the order.
Garmendia hissed impatiently. "A soft drink, idiota!"
The thug looked so relieved John was sure he hadn't even heard the insult.
When John had his drink and the smuggler's guard had withdrawn Garmendia looked at the younger man through ice cold eyes.
"So what do you want?" he growled.
Wow, John thought. What the hell has mom got on this guy? He knew some of the mobster's secrets, but obviously his mother knew more. And better ones.
"Only what I've already asked for," Dieter said, deciding to step back in. He'd grill John later. "Discretion and transportation."
Garmendia worked his mouth as though chewing and swallowing what he wanted to say. Finally he grated out, "You will pay for your own food?"
"Of course," Dieter said affably. As if I would eat or drink anything your people offered me after this. He wondered how Sarah had gotten the drop on this guy and his heart warmed with admiration.
What a woman
"I have no idea," John said as they bounced down a Bolivian back road on their way to Paraguay. "I doubt it's anything I already know." He glanced sidelong at his companion. "Or you do. Maybe he collects teddy bears or something."
Dieter was silent for a moment, smiling at the thought of Garmendia cuddling a teddy, even though dust gritted between his teeth. They were well into the chaco, the dry scrub jungle that covered most of eastern Bolivia, and western Paraguay. He knew the two countries had fought a bloody war over it, back in the 1930's. The road was potholed red dirt that billowed up behind the truck, tasting dry and astringent. The odor was familiar from his time -- brief time -- of retirement on his estancia in Paraguay.
"Your mother is an amazing woman," he said quietly.
John smiled at the sound of longing in the big man's voice. If mom could just have someone like Dieter, just for awhile, he thought, it would make up for a lot.
He quickly buried the thought that it might keep her sane, then sheepishly dug it up again. His mother had trained him too well to ignore what might be an important consideration for emotional reasons. Von Rossbach would keep her grounded and she couldn't have designed a better partner if she'd had the option.
Now all she has to do is survive, he told himself. After that it would be easy. She was smart, she'd see what was right in front of her. I'll make sure she does. Inside he smiled wryly. Hey! My first campaign. After getting her free, of course.
The taxi stopped, and hot metal pinged and clinked as it contracted. The ranch was hot too, but a familiar grateful warmth, none of the humidity of the northern jungles. The gardens around the sprawling old adobe-and-tile manor were still colorful with jacaranda and frangipani, tall quebracho trees, and lawns kept green by lavish watering. Dieter felt a complex mix of instant nostalgia and regret. He'd bought this property as a home for. . . well, perhaps not my old age. Middle age. You didn't get old in his profession; you either died, or you retired. Now he was back, but it probably wouldn't be for long. Unlike the Sector's campaigns, the one against Skynet would undoubtedly consume the rest of his life -- however long that turned out to be.
Heads turned as he climbed out of the car, stretching. "Señor!" Marietta Ayala ran from the portal with her arms outstretched as though to embrace her towering boss.
Dieter's jaw dropped at this display of familiarity. It had taken him months to convince the stout, formidable cook to call him Dieter, rather than Don von Rossbach. Come to think of it, he never had convinced her.
Marietta stopped short a good three feet from him and began to shake an angry finger at him.
"Where have you been all this time, Señor? We have been worried sick! No word, no idea where you were or when you'd be back. And Señora Krieger's house burned to the ground and she is missing and you!" she exclaimed as John got out of the taxi. "Where is your mother?"
Marietta left von Rossbach standing to hurry around the car and start a new tirade at John.
"You're filthy!" she said, holding a bit of his sleeve between thumb and forefinger. "And you look like you haven't eaten since you left! What has happened to you?"
"Calm down Marietta," Epifanio said. "Let the boy draw his breath to speak." The chief foreman sauntered over to them and extended his hand to his boss. "Welcome home, Señor, it is good to see you again. I am happy to inform you that everything here is under control."
"Under control!" his wife exclaimed. "There are bills waiting to be paid. . ."
"Which I have paid as necessary," the overseer interrupted calmly. "Everything is going just as it should." He looked into the back seat of the taxi, then indicated the trunk. "Is there baggage, Señor?"
"No," Dieter said quickly, as he counted out bills. "Nothing."
"Nothing?" Marietta asked, more calmly. "But, Señor, you have been gone many days. You have no laundry?"
"What I have, Señora Ayala," von Rossbach said gallantly as the cab drove off, "is a great hunger for some of your cooking. Would it be inconvenient for you to prepare something for us to eat?"
"Good heavens, no!" she said and bustled towards the house. "I'll have something on the table for you in just a moment." Just as they thought she was finished with them she turned and pointed a finger like a spear at John. "You!" she said ominously. "You take a shower right away, before you get one bite of dinner."
"Yes, ma'am," John said meekly.
"Elsa!" the housekeeper shouted. Her niece came out onto the portal. "Show the young gentleman to the guest room.
Elsa looked at John and blushed. "Si, auntie," she said softly. Then with a shy, dark eyed glance over her shoulder she said, "This way, señor."
Looking and feeling a bit surprised, and not knowing what to do with his hands for a moment, John cast a glance Dieter's way and at his nod followed the girl into the house.
Dieter looked around at his land, enjoying the peace of the place. Nothing like a little jaunt into evil and violence to make a man appreciate stability and quiet. That was why he'd decided to take up cattle ranching in the chaco of Paraguay when he originally retired from the Sector. The problem was that the old saying -- the only way you retired from this business was as a statistic -- looked more and more prophetic.
Epifanio watched his boss shrewdly.
"Perhaps after you have eaten and refreshed yourself from your journey, Señor, you would like to discuss. . ." he waved a vague hand at the grasslands around them, "what we have been doing here while you were away."
"Tomorrow will be soon enough," Dieter said.
"Si, Señor," Epifanio said, giving von Rossbach a slight, two fingered salute. With a smile he said, "Welcome home."
Then he put on his hat and headed back to work. This was one of the things he liked about his boss; the man respected his employee's time. Tomorrow was, of course, the better time for this discussion, but many employers would insist on asserting their right to know everything right now!
He wondered where von Rossbach had been, and where Señora Krieger was and why there was no luggage to take care of. With a sigh he admitted to himself that he might never know. Even Marietta had been unable to find out why the Senor had left, or about the fire at the Krieger estancia or anything. A sobering failure for both of them. Still, this was a new opportunity, they would have to see what time would bring them.
Dieter took a surreptitious sniff at himself. First a shower, then he'd check the mail while he waited for dinner. Marietta wouldn't slap just anything in front of him for his homecoming, so he had time. He took a deep, cleansing inhalation of the dry chaco air. It was good to be back. If Sarah was with them it would be perfect. He shook his head and went into the house, better not to think about what couldn't be helped. There was too much to do.
Sweeping back a damp lock of overlong hair from his forehead von Rossbach resolved to get a trim as soon as he had time. He walked down the corridor to his office and opened the deeply carved oak door, an item imported at, no doubt, ridiculous cost to the original owner of the estancia, and entered his office. A quick check of the hidden program showed nobody had tried to tap in, bug the house, or put it under surveillance -- at least nothing more sophisticated than entirely-passive systems, or the Eyeball Mark One. His brows rose, half in relief, half in surprise.
All was tidy on the desk except for the pile of mail threatening to topple out of his "in" tray. The most intriguing item was a legal-sized envelope of a rich cream color. Dieter slid it carefully from the pile.
The paper was of very high quality, with the return address embossed in gold. The names Hoffbauer, Schatz and Perez announced that they were attorneys at law.
Frowning, von Rossbach slit the envelope with a rosewood opener and pulled out the documents it contained. When he saw what they were he felt a shock, like the quick sizzle of electricity, just below his ribs. The document gave him custody of John in the event of Sarah's death or disappearance. There was a letter from her included in the package. The attorney, Perez in this case, cautioned that as Señor von Rossbach had not yet signed the documents giving his consent to this arrangement then they were, or course, unenforceable.
Dieter stared at the envelope containing Sarah's letter numbly. Had she sensed disaster? He'd been in the field long enough to know that, sometimes, people got such feelings. He'd also been in the field long enough to know that sometimes people simply surrendered to those feelings and by doing so brought disaster on themselves and others.
But not Sarah, he thought. Sarah had a goal, and a task; fight Skynet, preserve John. And she would fight for both with the last breath in her body. This was just an example of her expertise in advanced planning. Unforeseen things happened on even the best laid out campaigns. So this was a contingency plan.
When did she do this? he wondered. Before the Terminator and the fire that destroyed her home he was certain she did not trust him. Probably from the Caymans, then. By then she was letting him be a part of the team, getting to trust him. After the debacle in Sacramento he doubted she would have trusted him to take out the trash, let alone provide for her son. Dieter felt honored.
Of course I'll accept the responsibility, he thought. He'd contact Perez and see what could be done to make this document legal. Sarah being unavailable but not dead made things awkward from a legal standpoint, but few things were insurmountable. Particularly when Sarah's wishes were so plain.
That reminded him of another call he needed to make. Dieter pulled the phone towards him and entered the number Dyson had given him.
There were a series of clicks, one ring and then a woman's voice said, "Hello?"
"I'm calling for today's sailing report," Dieter said.
"And you are?"
"Thank you Mr. Ross. It looks like smooth sailing from now on."
"Thank you," Dieter said and hung up just as John entered the room. "Good news," he said with a relieved smile. "Your mother is out of danger."
John flopped into the visitor's chair and breathed out.
"Thank God," he said. He leaned forward and scrubbed his face vigorously with his hands. "Blaaahdddyaaa!" he said and leaned back. "She's okay." John sat for a moment, contemplating a spot of sunshine on Dieter's office floor, just letting himself feel his relief. He nodded. "Good," he said quietly. "Good. So all we have to worry about now," a sardonic smile lifted one corner of his mouth, "is what happens next."
"For your mother, once she's well enough, back to the asylum," von Rossbach said. He let his expression show that he didn't like the prospect one bit. "At least until we can do something about it." Dieter ran a finger down the length of the document the lawyers had sent him and decided to tell John. He'd want to know. "For you, back to school."
"School?" John said after a beat. "You think I've got time to screw around with school?"
Dieter held up his hand to stop what promised to become a tirade.
"You should know that your mother has designated me your guardian until your majority, or until she returns," he said.
"And what?" John said. "That weirds you out so much you can't wait to get rid of me? My mother has a business that needs to be run," he pointed out, then waved a hand to erase that. "But more important than that, do you think Skynet is finished? When Dyson told us that Cyberdyne had another backup site?"
Von Rossbach flipped his hand at him. "Are you suggesting that we go after it? Because, frankly, I think that would be suicide. That site has, no doubt, been more than adequately protected since our attack on Cyberdyne."
"Protected?" John shook his finger. "No, no, no. I'll go you one better. They've not only 'protected' that site, but they've built a clone of the work they were doing in California on some remote military base somewhere."
Looking thoughtful Dieter nodded slowly. It was possible; the military loved redundancy.
"They probably wouldn't trust Cyberdyne to bring this project in safely after what happened the first time," the Austrian murmured.
"Y'know, it kinda scares me, but I'm beginning to understand how these people think," John said tapping his fingers restlessly on the arms of his chair. "And like Mom said, events seem to want to work out in a certain way."
Dieter nodded again. "Where are you going with this, John?"
"I'm trying to point out that we can't afford to divide our efforts. There's a storm coming, and we need to prepare for it; we need to set priorities and stick to them. Me playing schoolboy isn't going to accomplish a damn thing."
He leaned his head back against his chair. "Our most immediate task is to find Skynet and keep it from going online. The longer we can do that the fewer, I hope, bombs will be available to it -- Judgment Day will already be a lot smaller than if it had happened back fifteen years ago, the way the 'original' history went. The fewer bombs it has the more lives we can save. The more lives we save, the more soldiers we have to fight the machines. Because they are coming. I'm sure of that now." He leaned back, his young face serious. "School is a just a waste of time for me. There's nothing I could learn there that you couldn't teach me faster, and better." John grinned. "Assuming you're willing to teach me."
The Austrian frowned and rubbed his chin in doubt; was this a sixteen year old trying to weasel out of school, or the future savior of mankind trying to get on with his important work? Then, with a sigh, he returned the younger man's smile.
"You're a quick study, John, it's no chore teaching you."
"Good. Because we may have years, or we may have months, there's just no telling."
"I just can't help wondering how your mother would feel about your dropping out of school," von Rossbach said glumly. "I wouldn't want to fail her trust."
"Hey," John said, "Mom has always kept her eye on the ball. And for her the ball is named Skynet. Next time you see her she won't ask how I'm doing in school, she'll ask what we've been doing to hold back Judgement Day."
Copyright © 2002 by S.M. Stirling <email@example.com>