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Esteeminator: The Daria Morgendorffer Chronicles
by Roland 'Jim' Lowery
Terry sighed as she locked the door. It had been a long day, and she was ready to get home and have a nice, long soak in the tub before curling up in bed for the night.
Just as she started walking down the sidewalk, lights started flaring from a nearby alleyway, accompanied by an electrical noise. At first Terry thought that a transformer must have exploded, but the light and sound continued for several seconds before tapering off. Curious - and worried that someone might have been hurt by the display, or something else important might have been damaged - she carefully edged around the corner to see what had happened.
Before Terry could get a good look, she was almost run down by a young woman exiting the alley. The girl was thin, but with an athletic build, which was easy to see since she was completely nude. She looked the older woman up and down, then spoke in a flat, emotionless voice.
"Your clothes. Give them to me."
Terry came out of her shock. "Oh my God," she said, "are you okay, honey? What happened?"
The girl stared back impassively, then said, "I am fine. I require your clothing."
Blinking in surprise, Terry looked up and down the street. The only people in sight were a small group hanging around outside the Zon, too far away to be of any help. She gave a soft chuckle despite her concern and put a hand on her hip.
"Well, honey," she said nervously, "if I gave you mine, I'd be running around naked, and I wouldn't look half as good doing it. But I tell you what . . . I own a clothing store here. Why don't we go find something in your size?"
"That would be acceptable," the girl said. Then, after a moment's thought, "Thank you."
"Oh, it's not a problem," Terry told her as she dug the keys from her pocket. "I give out regular shipments of overstock to homeless shelters. We'll just cut out the middle man in this case. But don't tell anybody, okay? Don't need the place crawling with Lawndale's destitute looking for handouts."
Once back inside the Funky Doodle, Terry walked over to the counter and flipped on a few of the lights. She breathed a sigh of relief when the florescents came on, lighting up several racks of alternative, retro, and vintage clothing. Whatever the light show had been earlier, it apparently hadn't affected the electricity.
"Just pick out anything you like," said Terry. "The underwear is off in the back, and you should find some shoes here and there."
The girl stalked the aisles, grabbing up clothing and putting it on as she went. Every move she made was precise with no wasted movement. It was almost creepy to watch. After a few minutes, she had assembled a complete outfit that Terry had to admit looked good on her.
"Well that's better, isn't it?" Terry asked. "Now if you don't mind, honey, I really need to close up and head home."
"Of course," the girl replied. "Thank you for your time. Please do not mention this to anyone."
The shopkeeper waved her hand in dismissal. "Shoot, hon, you didn't try to kill me or steal the money from the till, so keeping quiet is the least I can do. I hope you find your way out of whatever trouble you've gotten into."
Nodding curtly and without another word, the girl marched out the door and down the street. After she was gone, Terry closed up shop again and put the incident out of her mind.
It came back up briefly when she heard the next morning that Axl's Piercing Parlor had been broken into, but she decided to keep her promise to the girl since the only thing stolen had been a set of three matching earrings.
Daria Morgendorffer sighed to herself as she took a seat near the back of the class. The powers that be at Lawndale High School had determined that she needed to take a class on self-esteem, but she wasn't required to enjoy it, so she wasn't going to. She pulled out a notebook and pencil and prepared herself for the storm of boredom to come.
Mr. O'Neill, the wishy-washy English teacher she had already had to suffer through once yesterday and once today, was standing in front of his desk, waiting patiently for everyone to take their seats. When they were settled, he launched into a speech without any preamble.
"Esteem," he said in his soft voice. "A teen. They don't really rhyme, do they? The sounds don't quite mesh. And that, in fact, is often the case when it comes to a teen and esteem! The two just don't seem to go together. But we are here to begin realizing your actuality-"
Daria frowned at her notebook and raised her hand.
"-and when we do, each and every one of you will be able to stand proudly and proclaim, 'I am!' Now, before we-"
Daria's frown deepened as O'Neill continued unabated. "Excuse me," she called out. "I have a question."
"Sorry, question and answer time is later," the teacher told her.
"I want to know what 'realizing your actuality' means," Daria said as she lowered her hand.
O'Neill's face became a study in confusion and worry. "It means," he started, then stopped. "Look, just let me get through this part, okay? Then there'll be a video!" Worry completely erased as if it had never existed, he picked his speech up right where he had left off.
Daria leaned back in her chair in a huff. She didn't want to be in the class, and to get out of it she was going to have to at least fake her way through the material. It would be easier if she understood said material enough to fake her way through it, and O'Neill's refusal to answer her question was getting in the way.
She nearly jumped out of her skin when she heard a throaty female voice right next to her ear.
"He doesn't know what it means," the voice said. "I believe he has the speech memorized."
Turning slightly in her chair, Daria could see that the voice belonged to a dark haired girl clothed entirely in shades of red, black, and grey.
"How am I supposed to follow him if I don't know what he's talking about?" Daria asked.
The other girl gave a smile that didn't seem to reach her piercing blue eyes. "I can fill you in later," she said. "I've taken this course already."
Daria nodded in thanks, then turned back to the front. The girl in the seat behind her seemed a little odd, but she had willingly associated with Daria without making fun of her. And instead of trying to pump the "brain" for answers, she had offered to give them herself. The cynical part of Daria - that being the largest part - warned her that the girl might expect some kind of payment for her help, give wrong answers as a joke, or do something else mean and nasty, but her mother's words from the previous day swam into her conscious mind unbidden.
Don't judge people until you know them.
For once, Daria decided to do just that. Instead of worrying about all the bad things that might happen, she simply sat back and tried to enjoy the teacher's soothing voice.
"So then," the girl, who had introduced herself as Jane Lane, said, "after the role playing, they separate the boys and girls for the next class, and a female counselor will talk to us about body image."
She and Daria were walking home after class. Daria had some trouble keeping up with the other girl's brisk pace at times, but she was learning far more in just a few minutes from Jane than she had in an entire hour with Mr. O'Neill.
"What do they talk to the boys about?" Daria asked, adjusting her thick-rimmed glasses.
Jane's face went slack, looking as if she hadn't considered the question before.
Daria held up her hand and said, "Wait, a classroom full of guys and a male teacher? Nocturnal emissions."
She chuckled at her own joke, but Jane's blank look continued for a few moments before she burst into strange, fake-sounding laughter. It was the second time during their conversation that she had done so, and it was a bit off-putting to Daria. Still, Jane was a nice enough person otherwise, so Daria just shook it off.
"I don't get it, Jane," she said. "You've got the entire course memorized. How come you can't pass the test to get out?"
"I can pass the test," Jane told her matter-of-factly. "I have all the answers to the questions on the release test in my notebook."
Daria stared in surprise and waited for her to continue. When it became apparent she wouldn't, Daria asked, "Well . . . why don't you just take the test tomorrow and get out of the class once and for all?"
Jane appeared to think this over for a moment. "Yes, I could do that," she said. "But only if you tested out with me. You can borrow my notes and study them tonight."
"Um, wow," Daria said overwhelmed as she took Jane's proffered notebook. "But I've only been in the class one day. How am I going to explain . . . you know what, it doesn't matter. I want out of there. But why are you doing this for me?"
The strange half-smile flashed on Jane's face. "Because we're friends," she said cheerfully. The smile dropped and she turned to point at a house half a block away. "That's my place," she said.
As they approached it, Daria could see that the house in question was a complete mess. Faded yellow paint was peeling off the outside, the grass was mostly dead, and there was some strange thing made of twisted metal sunk into the front lawn. All of the windows were dark, and nothing of the inside could be seen beyond them.
"I'm not wanting to offend you or anything," Daria said carefully, "but when I saw this place yesterday, I didn't think anybody lived here."
"I'm not offended," Jane assured her. "I live here with my brother, Trent. The rest of my family travels a lot. Please be careful walking back to your house. I'll see you tomorrow, Daria!" She ran up to the door, waved at the other girl, and disappeared inside.
Shaking her head at the strangeness of the situation, Daria adjusted her backpack on her shoulder and resumed her walk home.
"So, like, what do you like to do after school?"
Daria prepared herself to tune out the conversation she and Jane were about to pass in the school hall when she noticed who the girl the boy was talking to was. She slowed down a little bit just so she could hear the expected reply.
"Oh, nothing special," the girl said airily. "Go to the movies. Or, like, a theme park. Or out for a really fancy meal now and then. Or maybe go to a concert if, like, I know somebody's got good seats and is renting a limo and stuff!"
Lips twitching upward in a smirk, Daria resumed her faster pace to catch up with Jane, who had stopped just a few feet ahead.
"Did you slow down to listen to those two people?" the taller girl asked as she looked over her shoulder.
"Oh, yah," Daria said with a shrug. "That's my sister, Quinn. The guy she's talking to hasn't got a prayer."
Jane frowned slightly and looked back again as if she were trying to place Quinn somewhere, but couldn't quite put her finger on it. Just as Daria was about to suggest getting a move on, the boy asked, "So, have you got any brothers or sisters?"
Quinn smiled back at him and said, "I'm an only child."
Daria scowled and her body stiffened. "Let's go," she snarled.
With one last glance back, Jane quickly caught up with Daria as she stalked through the students bustling to get home. "Didn't you say she was your sister?" she asked.
"Yes," Daria replied, "but I'm starting to consider making myself the only child, permanently."
Caught up in her fuming, Daria didn't notice Jane's face go completely blank except for her blue eyes, which twitched back and forth rapidly. Daria had to snap her fingers a couple of times before Jane seemed to realize that she'd walked past their self-esteem class without stopping. She turned back around and sheepishly mumbled "sorry" before walking through the door Daria was holding open.
"I guess we were both a little lost in thought there," Daria said as she followed.
Once inside, they decided to sit next to each other, close to the front where Mr. O'Neill was leaning across his desk. The next forty-five minutes were filled with the same boring nonsense that Daria had already come to expect from such a ridiculous class, but she sat up straight and tried to look as attentive as possible while she mentally reviewed all the test answers over and over again.
As the interminable class was drawing to a close, O'Neill stood up and said, "Now, guys, I've got a little challenge for you! Today we talked about turning your daydreams into reality. Tonight, I want each and every one of you to go home and do just that! What do you say?" He hummed to himself as he scanned the class, then pointed. "You! What's a daydream that you'd like to see come true?"
It took Daria half a second to realize that he was talking to her. "Well," she said reluctantly, "I guess I'd like my whole family to do something together."
"Excellent!" said Mr. O'Neill in his overeager way.
Daria tried to reel herself in, but she couldn't resist. "Something that'll really make them suffer," she said.
The teacher blinked in surprise. "Um," he said, suddenly unsure. "Well, uh, it's healthy to air these feelings. I think," he added quietly just before the bell rang. "We'll talk more about this tomorrow. Class dismissed!"
After the rest of the students had shuffled out, Daria and Jane remained behind, having moved to stand right in front of Mr. O'Neill.
"Hi!" he said brightly when he noticed them. "Did you . . . need clarification on something we covered today?"
Daria put on her best smile and forced herself to sound as cheerful as possible as she said, "We feel really good about ourselves."
"We want to take the graduation test," Jane chimed in with equally fake sounding enthusiasm.
O'Neill's face lit up like a Christmas tree. "Well!" he exclaimed. "I'm glad your self-image meter is on the uptick! But . . . this is only the second day of class."
"The first day was a real eye-opener," Daria told him. "It must be the way you teach."
"Oh, well, thank you very much!" he said, clasping his hands together at the girl's flattering words. He then turned to Jane and tilted his head in confusion. "I'm sorry, but . . . do I have you in any of my other classes? I don't-"
"So can we take the test?" Daria swiftly interrupted him. She figured no good would come from O'Neill realizing Jane had already taken the class before. If he didn't recognize her - just as he never seemed to be able to recognize anyone, relying on seating charts to keep everyone sorted in his own head - then it would make their attempt at deception all the easier.
O'Neill tapped his fingertips together before shrugging and picking up a copy of the test papers. "It's not the way we usually do it," he said, "but I guess so! Okay, question one. 'Self-esteem is important because . . . '"
"'It's a quality that will stand us in good stead the rest of our lives,'" Daria quoted from memory.
"Very good!" He smiled briefly at her, then looked back down at the test. "Now, 'The next time I start to feel bad about myse-'"
Jane rattled the answer out before he could quite finish the question. "'Stand before the mirror, look myself in the eye, and say, "You are special. No one else is like you."'"
The teacher looked almost giddy enough to wet himself. "You two really have been paying attention!" he said in wonder. "Okay, 'There's no such thing-'"
"'As the right weight,'" Jane filled in.
"'Or the right height,'" Daria added.
"'There's only what's right for me.'"
"'Because me is who I am.'"
Mr. O'Neill's joy had ascended to pure shock. He stared at the girls for a second, put the test down on his desk, and said, "I don't think we have to go any farther. I am really pleased! I think the whole school needs to hear about this at assembly!"
Daria's face dropped from it's half-smile so fast that it felt as if it would slide straight off and land on her boots. She glanced over at Jane, who had gone into the blank stare mode that Daria had already learned denoted confusion.
An assembly?! Daria groaned inside her head. She and Jane had taken the test early so they wouldn't have to put up with any more self-esteem nonsense, and now it seemed that public humiliation would be their reward. She tried to think of something, anything that would get them out of it, but nothing she could think of to say would also keep them out of the class.
Daria's heart plunged into her gut. This was happening, and there was nothing she could do about it.
From her seat on the auditorium stage, Daria looked out at the mass of congregating students. On her left, Jane was sitting bolt upright with her hands placed loosely on her knees. Her head was slowly turning back and forth, and she seemed to be scanning each and every person who walked in. Further along in the row of chairs on stage were Mr. O'Neill and man Daria didn't recognize. From the muscular build hiding under a thick layer of fat, she guessed him to be one of the school's coaches.
Once everyone was inside, Principal Angela Li stepped up to the podium and called for attention. She made a few short announcements, capped off by a reminder of the bake sale that was taking place in a few days, then turned the microphone over to O'Neill.
"This is really going to help me gradually ease into student life," Daria whispered to Jane, dreading the next few minutes. Jane continued sweeping her gaze back and forth across the audience. Daria looked out to see if she could make out what her friend was looking for, but the only thing that caught her attention was Quinn sitting between two shady looking boys about two-thirds of the way back. She turned her attention back to O'Neill.
"-may not even know you're low on it," he was saying, "until one day you go to shift gears, and nothing happens!"
"That's transmission fluid!" one of the students yelled. The other kids started laughing as O'Neill gripped the lectern nervously.
"That's . . . what I said," O'Neill stammered. Though she hadn't been listening, Daria felt fairly certain that it wasn't. "Anyway," he continued, "I'd like you to meet two students who have completed our self-esteem course faster than anyone ever before! Please join me in congratulations as I present these certificates of self-esteem to . . . "
He pulled out an index card and read from it, "Daria . . . Morgendorffer and Jane . . . Lane!"
Without warning, Daria's world went completely mad.
She heard a sharp report - almost like a firecracker - echo out across the crowded auditorium. A split second later, one of the top corners on her plastic backed chair exploded, sending fragments everywhere. She could feel the rest of the chair vibrate violently underneath her as her eyes rolled around in fear. She had just barely registered the sight of a girl wielding a pistol and marching down one of the aisles when Jane turned to face her, grabbed her up from her seat, and took her into a crushing embrace.
Even if she hadn't been too shocked to do so, Daria wouldn't have been able to scream since Jane's bear hug had squeezed all the air from her lungs. The firecracker exploded three more times, and Jane's body shuddered slightly with every pop.
"Run," the dark-haired girl was breathing into Daria's ear, barely audible even that close over the frantic screaming and pounding of feet as the students began to panic. "Go to my house, go inside, and stay there. Run, and don't look back."
Jane let Daria go, but the other girl simply stood there, cringing. Two more shots rang out, one of them tearing away more of the chair that Daria had just recently occupied.
"GO!" Jane shouted.
Daria suddenly snapped out of her trance of fear, bolted off the stage, and hurtled through the auditorium's side exit. Her path was unimpeded, as most of the other students were trying to push their way through the upper doors. After skidding across the floor in the hall, she turned and started pumping her legs as fast as they could go in her search for a way out of the school.
After a few twists and turns, she dimly realized that she had gotten turned around somehow. Tears started to form. It wasn't fair. It just wasn't fair! She had only been at Lawndale for a few days and she still didn't know her way around very well. She tried to pick a direction to go by watching the mass of teenagers flowing around her, but they all seemed to be lost themselves, running any which way they could find.
Picking a hallway intersection at random, Daria turned into what seemed to be a random bubble of sanity in the chaos. Only a couple of her fellow students occupied this area, but it was only a few yards in that she realized the other two people had been trying to get away from where she was as fast as they could. She had just pulled herself to a stop in order to turn back around when a girl stepped from between a row of lockers and turned toward her.
The girl was the same one that had been marching down the auditorium aisle. Flecks of blood stained her baby blue shift, and her almond eyes locked onto Daria with a strangely passionless intensity. The pistol in her hand gleamed as she raised it to aim directly at the bridge of Daria's glasses.
Daria stood frozen, rooted to the spot as surely as if she had been planted there. She gaped wordlessly at the Asian girl bearing down on her and waited for the burst of sound and gunpowder flame that would put an end to her short life.
Jane erupted from the hallway Daria's would-be killer had just vacated, snatched hold of the girl's arm and head, and buried her halfway into a row of nearby lockers with a full body slam. The half of the girl's face that Daria could see did not register anything . . . pain, surprise, nothing. She still gripped the pistol tightly and managed to fire it once, but it was pressed up against the lockers and no longer pointed at its intended target.
Jane's face was also devoid of emotion as she turned it to Daria and shouted, "Run!"
Pain stitched its way up Daria's side, and her breath came in wheezing gasps, but she didn't stop. She couldn't stop. Jane had saved her life, had stayed behind to keep that crazy killer girl back so Daria could get away. In all likelihood, Jane was dead, and Daria owed it to her to follow her last request.
Sirens wailed in the distance, but Daria never once thought to turn from her course and seek them and the safety they promised out. Her boots pounded out a furious rhythm on the sidewalk as she glanced at every house she passed until she finally saw the twisted metal sculpture marking Jane's run-down house. She turned without slowing and hit the front door at full speed. She was knocked back a few steps by the impact, but didn't stop to consider any injury she might have sustained from it. With a panicked whine, Daria grasped the doorknob, twisted it, and rushed inside.
Except for sunlight filtering through heavy drapes, the house was completely dark. And from what little Daria could make out in the dim light, it was completely empty as well. The den she was standing in was devoid of furniture, the walls sported no portraits or other decoration, and even the light sockets were empty.
This struck Daria as extremely odd, of course, but she filed it away for future scrutiny. Next to having been shot at, having a friend who lived in an empty house seemed hardly worth worrying about. All that was important was that she was away from the school and had someplace to hide for the moment.
Daria staggered over to the nearby stairway and sat down. She took off her glasses and buried her face in her hands as she tried to catch her breath in between sobs. Her entire life had been uprooted by the move from Highland to Lawndale, but she had made the mistake of thinking maybe, just maybe, she could make an actual friend there and that life could possibly improve as a result. But now . . .
Why me? Daria asked herself. Why does the universe insist on hating me so much?
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of movement close by. She jerked her head up, fully expecting to see the Asian girl standing over her and the barrel of a gun sitting right in front of her eye. What she actually saw was taller than the girl, but blurry and indistinct. She quickly jammed her glasses back on and looked again.
A slender, middle-aged man was standing in a nearby doorway. He held a shotgun in his hands, but he wasn't pointing it at her and didn't seemed to be inclined to do so. What little of his expression that Daria could make out in the dim lighting was astonishment mixed with small amounts of fear.
"T-Trent?" she said huskily.
The man frowned. "How do you know that name?" he demanded.
Daria was momentarily speechless, her jaw lifting and dropping a few times. "I . . . I . . . Jane told me she lived here with her brother, Trent," she finally managed.
He stared at her thoughtfully for a second, then stepped out of the shadow cast by the door frame. He was wearing what looked like castoff clothing from a Salvation Army bin, and there were light streaks of grey in his reddish-brown hair. From the stubble on his face and the bags under his eyes, it appeared that he hadn't shaved for several days and hadn't slept for several more.
"No," he said gruffly. "I'm not that thing's brother. And I'm not Trent. My name is Nick Campbell, and I'm here to help you."
"Help me?!" Daria yelled, exasperated. "Do you even know me?! What the hell is going on here?!"
"I can explain everything," Nick told her as he hefted his shotgun, "but if you're here, that means you've got metal on you. We need to get you out of here."
Daria shook her head emphatically. "No," she said. "No, Jane told me to stay here. I have to stay here."
"You can't trust that thing," Nick said. "We have to leave, now."
He took a step toward her and put out his hand, but she screamed and slashed at it with her nails. He jerked back with a curse, thin red marks trailing across the backs of his fingers.
"I'm not going anywhere with you!" she screeched. "Not until someone tells me what the hell is going on!"
Nick's jaw flexed, causing the veins in his neck to stand out prominently. He rubbed the back of his hand and glared at her. "Fine," he growled. "You're the boss, boss. But if the metal busts through that door and kills us, then everything we're working for is lost! Lost! Do you understand me?!"
Daria stood up, the stairs putting her at the same height as Nick. Though her eyes stung with tears and her body felt worn down from the adrenaline coursing through her system, she matched his black look and refused to back down. Nick snorted and leaned back against the wall.
"On August 4th, 1997, the artificial intelligence national defense system known as Skynet came online," he told her, sounding as if he were reciting a history book. "Three weeks later, it became sentient and self-aware. When the men in charge of the project panicked and tried to shut Skynet down, it fought back, launching the nuclear arsenal of the United States at Russia, triggering a-"
"No, stop," Daria interjected, throwing her hands up in the air. "Bullshit. That was two years ago, and I sure as hell don't remember any nuclear war!"
"Who's telling this story, you or me?" Nick asked testily. "You wanted to know what's going on? Well this is what's going on! Now, may I continue?"
Daria curled her lip and made a disgusted noise, but she sat back down without any objections.
"Thank you," he said sarcastically. "The day the bombs were dropped was called Judgement Day, and it was the first strike in the war between humanity and Skynet. The AI built machines to serve as its army, and the footsoldiers in this army were the Terminators, humanoid robots with a hyperalloy combat chassis and programmed to kill humans as efficiently as possible.
"Humanity fought back, so the machines had to adapt. Infiltrator model Terminators were developed, cyborgs with organic coverings that would allow them to pass as human. They would move deep into human bases . . . and then the slaughter would begin. But even this wasn't enough. The humans were winning because of one individual-"
"Oh, let me guess," said Daria. Her voice dripped with venom. "It was me, right?"
Nick shook his head. "No. It was a man. John Connor." He spoke the name with reverence, almost as if describing a religious figure. "He led a series of successful campaigns that had Skynet concerned. In order to cut off the resistance at its source, it sent a Terminator back in time to kill Connor's mother before he could be born. The resistance captured a time displacement machine and sent back one of their own people to protect her.
"The Terminator's mission failed. Later, Skynet tried to kill the Connors again, this time when John was twelve years old. With the help of a reprogrammed Terminator, they were not only able to stay alive, they managed to destroy Cyberdyne, the company responsible for Skynet's construction."
He looked down at his shotgun and gritted his teeth. "But they didn't stop Judgement Day. Skynet will now come online on April 19th, 2011, and the nuclear launch will happen just two days later."
Nick fell silent. Daria stared at him for several moments, her brain trying to process what she'd just heard.
"Time travel," she said. "Killer cyborgs from the future. Nuclear devastation brought on by an artificial intelligence that hasn't even been built yet, except it already was, but not anymore. Do you realize just how insane you sound right now? And even if - and that's a mighty bit if - you're telling the truth, where do I fit into all of this? Why would one of these . . . these Terminators be hunting me? Shouldn't they be off bothering this Connor guy instead?"
"Several months ago, your time, that's exactly what they were doing," said Nick. "But . . . he disappeared."
"'Disappeared'? Like how?"
Nick shrugged. "Nobody seems to know, not even Skynet if we can believe the messages we've been intercepting. He just dropped off the scopes, so the machines have started focusing on other targets. And yes, this time, that includes you. Connor is the leader of the human resistance on the main front along the US west coast, but after Judgement Day hits, Daria Morgendorffer becomes commander of the east coast forces."
Before Daria could begin formulating a reply to this, the front door suddenly opened and Jane stepped through. She was backlit by the windows on either side of the door, but Daria could see that the other girl-
No. Not a girl. Daria stepped closer to get a better look. There were several tears and holes in Jane's clothing, but the thing that caught Daria's attention was the chunk of flesh that had been ripped away from the right side of Jane's face, right along her cheek from the side of her nose to her temple. Underneath was not bone like expected, but metal smeared with a viscous substance that looked almost but not quite like blood. Her left eye still appeared human, but the right was a metallic orb with a glass pupil that glowed bright blue.
"Mission accomplished?" Nick called out.
Jane's eyes twitched upward, moving perfectly together and startling Daria. "Negative," the cyborg said. "The other triple-8 retreated after Daria escaped. I was unable to track it."
The man swore under his breath. "Okay, we need to get out of here, find someplace else to hunker down for a while. The police will check the school records, and we need to be gone before they get here."
"Wait, wait!" Daria said, stopping the other two mid-stride. "This is . . . this is real? This is really happening? She's a cyborg, and you're both . . . from the future?"
Jane and Nick exchanged glances. "It is a cyborg," Nick corrected her. "And yes. We're from the future, and this is really happening. Now let's go, alright?"
Daria, lost in the torrent of information and confirmation that had been dumped on her all in the space of ten minutes, allowed them to lead her out the back door of the house and into a world that no longer made any sense.
The machine sat in a dark room. The only light it required was a small penlight set on the scratched and battered table it was sitting at.
A quick diagnostic determined that the damage done to its endoskeleton during its fight with the traitor machine was negligible. The impact with the lockers had, however, torn the organic shell along its upper left arm, leaving a section of the underlying chassis exposed and depreciating its infiltration capability.
This was unacceptable.
It placed a first aid kit that it had pilfered from the nurse's office at the Lawndale High School building on the table and opened it. After taking a needle and precisely pushing a length of thread through the eye, the machine pushed the ragged flesh on its arm together and stitched it up. Once that was finished, it laid gauze over the wound and wrapped it with a heavy bandage.
Several smaller nicks were then tended to, most of them only requiring the application of an adhesive strip to hide the metal underneath. Within minutes, the machine was once again indistinguishable from a human by outside observers.
Unfortunately, the identity that it had adopted for this time frame had been compromised. Human authorities would be searching for the "her" that it had been posing as. Even if it had been capable of doing so, it would not have feared human interference with its mission objective, but its creator and master had programmed it with very explicit instructions regarding exposure.
The machine would have to search for its target quietly. It had to show restraint. Patience.
It changed its clothing to something more practical than the shift it had been wearing. It checked and double checked the small cache of weapons sitting in the corner of the room. It ran a final self-diagnostic.
Dressed, discretely armed, and operational within acceptable paramaters, the machine exited the room and began the hunt.
Soon after the trio had found and broken into an abandoned storefront, Daria had crashed. The stress of her predicament had caught up with her and forced her into a deep sleep to recuperate.
As Daria dozed in the back under Nick's care, Jane stood at the counter and kept careful watch through the heavy curtains hanging across the store's windows. She gripped Nick's shotgun in her slender hands and scanned the street outside, her eyes the only part of her moving. They had found replacement clothing for her in another store and patched up her bullet wounds, but the only thing that could be done for the tear across her face was to clean it and cut off the dangling pieces of pseudo-flesh.
Several hours passed before Daria awoke asking for water. Nick found a spigot on the back outside wall, but as he had nothing to carry it in, she had to drink the liquid from his cupped hands. She thanked him, then laid her head back on her bundled jacket for a few minutes before getting up and joining Jane in the front of the store.
"I figure you've got a lot of questions," Nick said once she had collected herself.
Daria chuckled darkly. "You figure," she replied with scorn. "Yah, I have a lot of questions. First and foremost, are we safe here?"
"Nowhere is safe," Jane said, never taking her eyes from the window.
"It's the first rule," Nick added.
Daria rubbed her face with her hand. "Okay, I get that," she said. "But if we get rid of this cyborg that's after me, we're good, right? I can go back to my family and just wait for the bombs to drop so I can become Little Miss General?"
Nick looked down at his feet before answering. "I wish I had the luxury of giving you a comfortable lie," he told her, "but this is going to be your life now. They won't be coming at you in droves, and you might even go for a few years at a time without seeing metal, but they're going to keep on coming now that they've got your scent."
Daria gulped and thought this over. The concept of everything in her life changing was one that she'd already had to get used to with the move, but this was too much. It didn't want to fit comfortably in any of her mental slots. It was just too big.
"Is this how it happened?" she asked. "Is this why I became a resistance leader? Because one of them came back to kill me?"
"No," Nick replied, shaking his head. "I don't really know that much about how it works-"
"Predestination paradoxes are theoretically possible," Jane interrupted, "but the general understanding of temporal mechanics is that anything that resembles such a paradox is simply an overwriting of the timeline so that it takes a path similar to what was already going to occur without temporal interference."
"Anyway," Nick continued, clearly put out, "that's not how it happened here. Originally, there was no shoot out at the school, you graduated and went to college, and survived J-Day. You became a leader without any forewarning."
"I got into college?" Daria asked in wonderment. "Where did I- no, wait, I don't guess that's important right now. I mean . . . now that I have been forewarned, doesn't this make things worse for the machines? If they've really ruined my college plans, then I'm sure as heck ready to start learning everything I need to know about crushing some cybernetic skulls right here and now!"
"It is a calculated risk," Jane confirmed. "But now that Skynet has given you that forewarning, it will be even more determined to correct its mistake by terminating you here in the past."
Daria looked close to tears again. "There really is no good news here, is there?" she said with a sigh.
"'Fraid not," said Nick. "Especially with that triple-8 still at large."
"Okay, what's that? That triple-8 stuff?"
"T-888," Nick spelled out. "It's the series number. The triple-8s are the current main stock of Skynet's army. The machine tracking you is one, and sweetcheeks there is another."
Daria looked at the back of Jane's head and shook her head in wonder. "I still can't get over that," she said. "Why didn't you just tell me? Maybe we could have avoided what happened at the school!"
"It was hoped that I could protect you without causing any major deviations in the timeline," Jane replied. "I was attempting to locate the Terminator that was sent back to eliminate you, but I was unsuccessful. The student designated Tiffany Blum-Deckler was initially dismissed as a possibility when I hacked into the school records, as she had transferred into Lawndale High several months before the end of the previous school year."
"Time travel still isn't a very exact science," Nick explained. "Seems that sometimes people end up in the wrong place or time. We both left at the same time, but I only got in a couple of days ago while metal lips here popped out a few weeks back."
"An Asian girl," Daria said, frowning. "With the last name 'Blum-Deckler'. Who transferred in earlier in the year. And neither of you thought this was odd."
"Well, come on," Nick groused, "we've been out of the loop for a little while! Some of us have been fighting a war in a post-apocalyptic nightmare for the past fifteen years!"
"Fine, whatever. But if she got here all that time ago, why didn't she just go down to Highland and . . . and kill me there?"
Nick held up an index finger. "It," he said with emphasis. "Not she. Don't make the mistake of thinking these things are people. Not even our little pet tin can."
"Okay, then why did it not go to Highland?"
"The records concerning your original hometown were destroyed at some point," Jane explained. "Skynet has theorized that you did this yourself, as it is only references to and from Highland that no longer exist. Your transfer to Lawndale is still documented in the future, which is how we were able to track you down so soon after you came here."
Daria mulled this over for a few seconds. "That doesn't make any sense," she finally said. "Why would I do that?"
"If you did do it, you never told anyone," Nick added. "At least, you didn't tell me or anyone working the time displacer. I asked."
"What are you two to me in the future, anyway?" Daria asked. "Are you my personal bodyguards there, too?"
Nick sucked air in through his teeth. "Nobody," he said. "We're nobody to you. I'm just a soldier in your army and it's just one of a few hacked machines we've got running around. That's why you sent us back. We're good . . . but expendable."
Daria crossed her arms and said, "I don't like that. No one is expendable. I may not like other people very much, but I'm not going to just use them because they aren't important to me personally."
"Hey!" Nick yelled, suddenly vicious. "A lot of things change in the future! People change! You know what I used to do before the war started? I was in a band! I played the fucking bass guitar! I was just another brain dead loser trying to scrape enough money off the floor with my own dreams and aspirations to pay child support!" He stepped away from the wall and pointed angrily at Daria. "But now I'm a soldier. And you are going to be a general. What you like has nothing to do with it, because for the sake of all humanity, you're going to have to decide who and what is expendable.
"Now if you'll excuse me," he said icily, "I'm going to go check on the weapons we brought from the house. I don't like standing out here without something in my hand."
Halfway to the backroom door, he heard Daria call his name. He turned around to see fury etched into every line on her face. It took him aback, and for a split second he could have sworn he was actually facing his Daria, the one from the future.
"I want to see my family now," she said evenly.
Nick quickly recovered and shook his head. "No," he said. "Not gonna happen. You are the target. If you contact them, then you make them a target. The machine will try to get to you through them."
"I want to see my family," she repeated, baring her teeth. "Now."
"End of discussion," Nick said, cutting a hand through the air. He turned and left the room without another word.
Daria sagged against the counter, her arms gone limp at her sides. All of the anger that she had built up at Nick disappeared as quickly as it had come, leaving her drained. She considered going back to sleep again, but she was just tired, not sleepy anymore.
Looking up, she saw that Jane had turned around and was staring at her. "Shouldn't you be keeping a lookout?" she asked wearily.
"The odds of being discovered are significantly low at this point," the cyborg stated flatly. "Are you okay?"
Daria snorted. "No, not really," she said. "That Nick is kind of a hardass, isn't he?"
"He has to be. It's his function."
"Maybe." Daria shrugged halfheartedly. "He shouldn't have said all those things about you, though."
Jane tilted her head to the side. "What things?"
"Calling you all those names. Saying that you're not a person."
"I have no feelings to hurt," Jane said, tilting her head the other way. "And he is correct in saying that I am not a person."
Daria looked up and stared directly into Jane's eyes. "You saved my life," she said forcefully. "That makes you a person in my book."
As Jane stared back, Daria found her gaze inexorably drawn to the torn skin surrounding the soft blue glow of Jane's eye. She stood up and moved over to where Jane was standing. Though the counter was between them, they were still close enough that Daria could make out every detail of the metal underneath. She could see every tiny bolt attaching the cheek to the skull, every little wire running through the recesses of the eye socket.
"Does it hurt?" she asked.
"My sensors indicate that there is damage to my organic sheathe," Jane replied. "But no. It does not hurt."
"Will it . . . I don't know, grow back, or something?"
"In time. I have lost the eye lens, however, and will have to find or construct a replacement." The iris on the glowing eye contracted slightly. "It is highly inconvenient."
"I'll bet," Daria said with a small laugh. She raised a hand up. "Can I . . . ?"
Jane nodded once, then held her head preternaturally still. Daria reached out and lightly brushed her fingers across the metal cheekbone. Jane didn't flinch at the touch, so she pressed down harder, getting a better feel. She traced along the edges of the socket, sensing minor dents and divots here and there. She wondered briefly if these tiny imperfections were gained during the fight at the school, or if Jane had been damaged in earlier battles.
"It's warm," Daria said in surprise.
"My coolant systems direct waste heat outward," Jane explained, moving her lips without disturbing the rest of her head. "It is regulated in such a way to give my entire body a human-normal temperature."
"That . . . makes a terrifying amount of sense."
Pressing on, Daria moved her fingers down across the ragged flesh next to the cyborg's nose. Once again she expected a flinch of pain, but there was no reaction at all. The "blood" that seeped out was thick and felt like syrup. The skin itself was slightly springy, but otherwise felt little different from a human's.
Daria's hand traced its way over to Jane's temple. She reached up with her right hand and placed it against the other girl's undamaged cheek.
"You said we were friends," she breathed. "Are we?"
Jane's eyes flicked back and forth for a moment. "It was my mission to ensure that we became friends so that I could protect you," she said.
Daria sighed, put her hands down, and half-turned away. "So I sent you back here to protect me," she said, switching back to her normal speaking voice. "That means you've been programmed to follow orders, right?"
" . . . my orders?"
A frown suddenly laid heavy across Jane's features. It was clearly an affectation, but an effective one, demonstrating that she knew where the conversation was going. "Affirmative," she said. "But this is not conducive to our mis-"
"Skip it," Daria interrupted. "We are going to my house. You are going to protect me without stopping me, and you are not to alert Nick to our departure. Understood?"
Jane's face went impassive again, and she nodded silently. She set the shotgun down on the counter, pulled a pistol from the waistband in the back of her shorts, checked it, and slipped it back in. Then, reaching up with one hand, she pulled the hair on the right side of her face over so it completely covered the exposed metal.
Daria nodded in approval. "Let's get out of here."
"Look, Daria, I'm sorry about what I said earlier. Well, not what I said, but how I said it. I should've-"
Nick looked around at the empty store.
Police Detective James Smythe smoothed his mustache as he sat down on the couch across from the Morgendorffers.
Jake, the father, appeared to be a mildly pleasant man with a cheerfully oblivious smile on his face, while mother Helen seemed like the straight shooter type. Whenever she wasn't staring directly at Smythe, her eyes would dart over to the uniformed officer standing just inside the house's front door. Her look was piercing, analytical.
Once they were settled, Helen sharply asked, "Do you have any news regarding our daughter, Daria?"
"No, I'm afraid not, Mrs. Morgendorffer," Smythe replied. His voice was deep and controlled, precisely calculated to set people at ease. It didn't seem to be working on Helen just yet. "That's one of the reasons I'm here-"
"Oh, I'm sure she's just off collecting herself," Jake interrupted in an upbeat tone. "You know these crazy teenagers . . . they just need to grab a burger and a drink and BAM! They're right back on their feet!"
"Jake!" his wife admonished. "Focus! I'm sorry, detective, please continue."
"Well," Smythe said as he opened a small notebook, "before I can, I need to know exactly how much the two of you know about the incident at the school."
Helen shook her head sadly. "Not much, I'm afraid. Quinn came running in this afternoon, crying, and we couldn't make much sense of what she said. We tried calling the few people we know in town, but almost everything we heard was conflicting." She put her hand on Jake's and squeezed. "All we really know is that Daria is one of the students still unaccounted for."
"I'll try to fill in the blanks as best I can," Smythe said, then cleared his throat. "During a school assembly in which Daria Morgendorffer and a Miss Jane Lane were to receive certificates for completing a self-esteem class, another student pulled out a pistol and opened fire on the stage."
"A shootout at Lawndale High?!" Jake asked, horrified. "That really sucks!"
"Yes, Mr. Morgendorffer, I'm afraid it does." Smythe looked down at his notebook. "We've gotten conflicting reports of our own at this point. Fortunately, one of the things everyone seems to agree on is that Daria left the auditorium unharmed."
Daria's parents heaved a sigh of relief that was cut short by Smythe's next statement.
"Unfortunately," he said, "it seems that she was the shooter's primary target. Miss Lane stepped between her and the shooter, who continued firing on your daughter's position. I realize that this may be a bit of a shock to hear, and I wish that I could have given you some reassurance that this was just a random attack, but . . . well, I need to ask you a few questions, and I need you to answer truthfully. Your daughter's life may depend on it."
Helen nodded vigorously. "Of course," she said. "Anything you need to know. But . . . is this Lane girl okay?"
"We'll get to that in time, ma'am." Smythe consulted his notes again and asked, "Do you or either of your daughters have any enemies of which you are aware?"
"No!" Jake blurted out immediately. "At least, none that would want to kill any of us! I mean . . . I don't think-"
"Jake," Helen said softly, patting his arm. "My husband is right, Detective Smythe. The only enemies we have are more like professional rivals. They're only interested in destroying our careers, not our lives. And most of them are back in Highland. We only just moved to Lawndale a few days ago, and though Daria may be a little rough around the edges, I don't think she would have had time to agitate anyone enough to make them want to shoot her. She mostly keeps to herself, anyway."
"Of course," Smythe said, smiling slightly at them. "I figured as much, but we have to ask, don't we? Can you think of any other reason someone might attack Daria?"
Both parents shook their heads.
"Now, both of your daughters have made a few friends at their new schoo-"
"Friends?" Helen asked, incredulous. "Daria has made friends?!"
Jake pumped a hand in the air. "Hey hey! Way to go, kiddo!"
"Just one friend, to be precise," Smythe said as he looked up at them, confused by their reactions. "I take it Daria doesn't make friends easily?"
"Well, as I said, rough around the edges," Helen explained. "She's ferociously intelligent, our little girl, but she has so little interest in interacting with others. I don't suppose you know the name of this friend, detective?"
"Yes," Smythe replied carefully. "The already mentioned Jane Lane."
"Oh, dear," Helen said as she made the connection. Jake's expression dropped just a few moments after hers. "Is she all right? If she helped save Daria's life in any way . . . "
Smythe sighed. "We . . . aren't sure," he said. "I was hoping you could help us on that. Many of the students and teachers on the scene told us that Miss Lane was shot several times in the back, but that she walked away from it, seemingly unharmed. We're still trying to get the security tapes from the school to corroborate this."
"Do you suspect . . . drugs?"
"Amongst other things," he said with a nod. "It's possible that she was just hyped up on adrenaline. In either case, if she did get hit, things don't look good for her. We haven't been able to locate her, and unfortunately it seems likely that she will have died from shock at this point, now that whatever was in her system is gone. But if there's a chance we can find her and help her . . . do either of you have any idea where she or your daughter might be?"
"No, I'm afraid not," said Helen. "Daria never told us she had made a friend. This is the first time we've heard this girl's name, and we don't know anything else about her. I wish we did. And none of us know Lawndale well enough yet to say where she or Daria might have gone. Daria at least should have come here if she were in trouble. I don't understand why she didn't!"
Smythe nodded absently and flipped a page in his notebook. "Just one last question and then I'd like to speak to Quinn if I may," he said. "Do either of you know a Tiffany Blum-Deckler? Blum-Deckler being hyphenated."
Jake shook his head, and Helen said, "I believe that's the name of one of Quinn's friends. You'll have to ask her. But . . . I also heard the name while talking with some of the other parents. She was the shooter, wasn't she?"
"I would say that I'm not at liberty to discuss that," said Smythe, "but there seems little point. Now if you don't mind, I need to speak with your other daughter for a moment." He stood up and slid his notepad in his shirt pocket. "I'll need one or both of you to accompany me."
Jake went into the kitchen while Helen led the detective and the uniformed officer up the stairs. She knocked on one of the bedroom doors and opened it when she heard a pitiful "come in" from the other side.
The room beyond was horridly bright to Smythe's eyes. Two girls sat on the edge of the bed, one trying their best to comfort the other as her body heaved with wracking sobs.
"Quinn," Helen said softly, catching the attention of the crying girl. "This is Detective Smythe. He wants to ask you a few questions."
Quinn wiped her eyes and sniffled before nodding. "Okay," she said hoarsely.
The other girl held out her hand and shook briefly with Smythe. "Stacy Rowe," she said, taking her hand back and putting it on Quinn's shoulder. "Should I leave?"
"I'll have questions for you, too, but they'll have to wait until your parents are present," Smythe told her. "In the meantime, I'll have to ask you to step outside with Officer Parks."
Stacy hugged Quinn tightly into her denim jacket. Her dual pigtails swung on either side of Quinn's head as she briefly rested her chin on top. She whispered something into Quinn's ear, and the other girl nodded. With a nod to the detective, Stacy stood up and walked out the door with the police officer.
"Now, Quinn," Smythe said, "I know this is a hard time right now, but I need you to answer truthfully, okay?" When she nodded, he continued, "Okay. Do you know of any reason anyone would want to hurt your sister?"
"No!" she exclaimed, shaking her head emphatically and sending her long hair flying. "I mean, she's kind of a jerk sometimes, but no one would wanna, like, kill her or anything!"
"Of course, of course," Smythe reassured her. "Do you know a girl named Jane Lane?"
"That freakazoid that Daria's been hanging out with?" Quinn asked. "She's weird. We've never talked."
"And . . . Tiffany Blum-Deckler?"
Quinn burst into a fresh bout of sobs, burying her face in her hands. Helen sat on the bed and wrapped her arms around her daughter. Quinn's muffled moaning could still be heard by everyone in the room.
"Why would she do that?!" she cried. "She just pulled a gun out of nowhere and started shooting at Daria! She was kind of weird, but . . . why would she do that?!"
She pulled her tear-stained face back up and fixed her bloodshot eyes on Smythe. "I only knew her a couple of days," she said, trying to keep her voice from cracking. "We're in the Fashion Club together. She's kind of . . . I don't know how to explain it. Daria's the one that's good with words and stuff. She's just . . . blank, like there's nothing going on in there. Stacy and Sandi just said it was some inscrutable Chinese act she put on, and the only thing that mattered was how well she dressed . . . but there was nothing there! She, like, marched through the auditorium, shooting at Daria, and the whole time it looked like she was just out for a powerwalk at the mall! And then a couple of guys, they tried to jump her, take her down, and she . . . and she just . . . like it was nothing . . .
"I just don't understand," she said miserably before subsiding. She leaned heavily into Helen, wrapping her arms around her mother's waist.
Silence settled over the room for a few moments before Smythe broke it. "Thank you, Miss Morgendorffer. Mrs. Morgendorffer. I think that's all I need for the moment. If we get any more news on your daughter's whereabouts, I'll call you. In the meantime, I'd like to leave Officers Wheeling and Parks here for your protection. They'll be parked out front if you need anything."
"That sounds just fine," Helen said absently as she stroked Quinn's hair. "Thank you."
Detective Smythe stepped out of the room and collected Parks. As they were heading toward the stairway, Smythe heard Stacy call out to him.
"Yes, can I help you?" he asked, turning to face her.
Her earnest brown eyes were locked with his. "Don't worry about Quinn," she said. "I'll take care of her."
Smythe smiled at her. "You're a good friend," he said, then he and Parks continued on downstairs.
Stacy stared at their retreating forms, then walked back into the bedroom to help Helen comfort Quinn.
Smythe wiped the side of his face with his hand and tried to sort everything he'd heard into an order that made sense. He had several theories already on what had happened, but none of them seemed to ring true. The shooting didn't seem to be gang related. There didn't seem to be any halfway reasonable motive like revenge or jealousy. And if it was just a random freakout, then why target someone specifically? The only other people who were attacked, by all accounts, were those who had tried to stop Blum-Deckler. Everyone else she had left alone.
I just don't understand, Quinn Morgendorffer had said, and he echoed the feeling. He even had more information to go on than the younger sister, and it still didn't make any sense to him.
When a black and white had stopped by the address listed as Blum-Deckler's in the school registry, they found a completely different family living there. No one there had ever heard of a Tiffany, not even the neighbors. As for the supposed Lane residence, Smythe had checked it himself on his way over to the Morgendorffer's. It was long abandoned, and the records he'd pulled up from the computer in his car said that it was, in fact, condemned and scheduled for demolition next week. There was some evidence of squatters, but nothing and no one else.
What made it even worse was that besides school records, Tiffany Blum-Deckler didn't seem to exist at all. No birth certificate, no social security number, not even a library card. Or, at least, no real versions of these items. Fakes were apparently used to get her registered in school.
And as for Jane Lane-
Smythe's thoughts were cut short by the sound of gunfire coming from outside. He and Parks glanced at each other, pulled their pistols from their holsters, and burst out the front door just in time to see a young girl get run over by a truck.
Daria dredged up every curse word she knew and spat them out under her breath. When she reached the end of the list, she started churning out whole new words, many of which weren't swears but were thrown out with the same vehemence.
She and Jane were sitting in the wooded lot across the street from her house. A police car and another vehicle that Daria didn't recognize were parked in the driveway, and a police officer was standing just outside the front door. The cop was slowly looking up and down the block, but without enough interest to spot the two girls in their hiding spot.
After running a list of options through her mind, Daria set herself and starting moving from behind the tree she had been crouching behind. Jane swiftly reached out and grabbed her jacket.
"No," the cyborg said quietly but sternly.
Daria grimaced at Jane's hand, then looked up and said, "I ordered you not to stop me. Let go of me."
Jane's fist unclenched as if by its own volition. Jane glanced down at it with a slight look of annoyance. "Wait," she said.
"What?!" Daria hissed, turning on her. "What is it this time?! Will Judgment Day hit us this very second if I see my parents? Will the space-time continuum implode if I speak a single word to my sister? What?!"
Jane's robotic pupil contracted, then widened. "The police will die," she said simply. "The triple-8 would not immediately kill your family because it can use them as leverage to flush you out and they constitute no direct threat to its survival or its mission. The police do not possess either of those qualities. If you are taken into custody, even protective custody, it will terminate every single one of them in order to reach you. You are not safe with them, and they are even less safe with you."
Daria slumped against the tree, suddenly numb. "But . . . they have guns," she said lamely.
Jane twisted around to show the bullet holes marking the back of her red overshirt. Defeated, Daria crouched back down next to her.
"Fine," she said miserably. "I guess we just have to wait until the cops are gone."
"I do not understand this course of action," said Jane, affecting perturbed confusion. "You have mentioned your dislike of your family on occasion. You expressed a desire to terminate your own sibling. Why are we here? Are you hoping that by making contact with them, the triple-8 will-"
"No!" Daria exclaimed. Realizing her mistake, she clamped both hands over her mouth and peeked around the side of the tree. The cop had become alert, but was looking in the wrong direction. After a few seconds, he settled back, apparently deciding that the sound wasn't worth investigating.
"No," Daria said more quietly. "Look, I may not like them most of the time. I may even really really hate them sometimes. But they're still mine." She looked down at the ground and sighed. "They deserve to know what's going on before you and the butthead drag me off to wherever you're planning to take me."
Wind rustled the leaves overhead and a barking dog could be heard in the distance. Jane moved her hair back down to cover her eye while Daria sat on the ground, her hands clasped behind her neck. Several minutes passed before either one of them spoke again.
"So, while we're waiting," said Daria, "what happens to my family? In the future, I mean. Well, before things changed, anyway. I'm assuming things have changed now."
Jane was silent. Daria looked up and asked fearfully, "What? Is there something wrong?"
"No," the cyborg assured her. "I am merely attempting to utilize tact. Terminators are programmed to lie, but tact is still a difficult technique to master."
"I've noticed. Just . . . just tell me."
"Very well," Jane said with a nod. "Jake and Helen Morgendorffer were in Washington, DC, when Skynet became sentient. The city was obliterated in a nuclear strike."
Daria gaped at her in open horror. She shut her mouth, gulped, and said, "Okay, maybe I should've waited for the tactful version. What about Quinn?"
The distant dog's barking was cut off with a sudden yelp. Jane's head snapped in the direction of the cry, and she slowly reached back to pull the pistol out of her waistband. "Go to the house," she ordered.
Daria's eyes went wide. "But you said-"
"It's here," Jane said as she scanned the surrounding woods. "If I can't find it first, the police might be able to slow it down at least. Go now."
They launched themselves in opposite directions. Jane ran low to the ground around the trees while Daria darted across the road. When he noticed the young girl running toward him, the cop in front of the house put one hand on his pistol and held the other one in front of him.
"Daria Morgendorffer!" she screamed. "I'm Daria Morgendorffer!"
Startled, he took his hand from his pistol and caught her by the shoulders. "Whoa, whoa there," he said. "Did you say-"
"I'm Daria!" she yelled in his face. "This is my house! You have to help me!"
Daria whipped around as gunshots echoed across the woods, followed by the sound of a heavy impact. The Tiffany Terminator flew backward out of the trees and landed in the middle of the street with a thud. Jane stepped out after her and unloaded a full clip into Tiffany's prone body.
The police officer gasped and pulled his own gun as Tiffany slowly pushed herself up off the ground. Jane was reloading her pistol when a heavy-duty truck screeched around a corner and beared down on Tiffany. She turned into the oncoming blow, putting her hands out and setting her legs.
Daria heard the door behind her open, but she was riveted to the sight of the truck slamming directly into the T-888. The vehicle reared forward then fell back down with a crash, its front end crumpling a bit before Tiffany slid underneath. Both skidded to a stop, sparks flying.
When she saw a patch of reddish-brown hair laying against the truck's deployed airbag, Daria dashed out into the street, heedless of the danger. She pulled at the driver's side door madly, but it wouldn't open. A hand laid itself on her shoulder, causing her to shriek in fear and turn to punch her assailant, however futile a gesture it might be. Two blue eyes, one of them glowing, stared back at her.
"Stand back," Jane said, steering Daria to the side. She put her hand through the window, breaking it open, then gripped the door and pulled it off of its hinges.
Nick looked up, dazed, and said, "Oh, hey, girls." He shook his head to clear it and started pushing the airbag down. "And that," he said, "is why you should always wear your seatbelt."
"Where did you get this truck?" Daria asked as she and Jane helped him out of the vehicle.
"Stole it," he said. "We need to get out of here."
"Police! Get down on the ground! All of you!"
The trio turned to see two uniformed officers and a man in a business suit aiming pistols their way.
Nick leaned on Daria. "Jane," he said.
Jane stepped between them and the police, held up her pistol, and took three precise shots. The men fell to the ground all in a row, clutching their legs and screaming in pain. Daria's jaw dropped as Nick pulled her away, following Jane to the driveway.
"You shot them!" she screamed. "You shot them!"
"They'll live," Jane called over her shoulder. "But they are no longer a significant threat. If they were, the other triple-8 would kill them." She reached the car Daria didn't recognize, smashed the window, and opened the door.
"I just gave it a nasty shock," he told her. "It'll be back up and running any second now. We need to move!"
He pushed her in through the now-unlocked passenger side door and got in behind her. Jane leaned under the dash and deftly hotwired the car. When the engine sprang to life, she backed the vehicle out of the driveway and laid a patch of rubber on the asphalt before speeding away.
Smythe pushed his hands against the hole in his leg. It hurt like hell and was bleeding, but he could tell that it wasn't, relatively, a serious wound. He had seen serious wounds before, and they weren't nearly as pretty. With the accuracy she had displayed, he couldn't understand why the girl hadn't simply killed them. He replayed the scene in his mind. He hadn't gotten a clear look at her, but something about her eye . . .
Parks was yelling into his radio, calling for backup and an ambulance. Wheeling was trying to stand up, unsuccessfully. Smythe was just about to say something to them when a sound from the direction of the truck caught his attention. The girl that had been run over was crawling her way out from underneath the wreck.
She stood up, causing anything Smythe had been going to say to shrivel and die in his throat. The tattered remains of a jeans and a jacket hung from her body. Patches of skin were missing from her arms, legs, and torso, but the most horrifying thing was her face.
Or rather, what was left of it. Only the left side of her head had any flesh left on it, and not much at that. The right side was nothing but a skull that appeared to be made entirely out of carbon-scored metal. Dirty teeth grinned at Smythe as a glowing red eye took in the situation.
She . . . it walked up to the three men as it looked at them appraisingly. It stopped next to Wheeling, who laid there, frozen in shock. Smythe started searching for his gun when it leaned down next to the terrified officer, but all it did was snatch the ring of keys from his belt and a pistol from the ground nearby.
It stared at the patch of rubber left on the street by the others as it marched over to the squad car. It ripped the door out, tossed it aside, slid into the driver's seat, and took off down the road in pursuit of the other vehicle.
Daria found herself smashed uncomfortably against the monitor mounted in the middle of the car's dashboard. It took her a little while to realize that it was a police computer, and that the car itself must have belonged to man in the suit, undoubtedly a detective. She had to pull her knees up to her chest just to fit in the seat.
She considered crawling in the back, but she had someone yelling in her ear, and it would seem like she was retreating. She wasn't about to show any signs of weakness. Not now.
"What the blue blazing fuck were you thinking?!" Nick was bellowing at her. "I told you this was what would happen! I told you exactly this would happen! You can't just go gallavanting around wherever you want anymore! You have to listen to what I tell you to do, and then do it! If you don't trust my judgment, then we are dead! Do you hear me?! ALL! DEAD!"
Twisting as much as she could in her seat, Daria howled and started beating on Nick's chest and shoulder with her fists. "SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!!!" she screamed. "I have been bossed around! I have been hunted! I have been shot at! I am not in the mood to put up with lectures from someone who lies to me, and I'm sure as hell not going to trust you!"
"What the fuck are you talking about?!" Nick asked as he tried to fend off her blows.
"Who are you?!" Daria demanded. "You're not just some soldier, and she's not just some machine! There's a reason I'm an outcast at school, a reason I'm your damned messiah figure! I'm smart! I can tell when I'm being lied to, especially by someone who sucks at it! So tell me who you are, or so help me I'm gonna jump out of this car at the next opportunity and walk all the way back just so Tiffany Blum-Deckler the Asian cyborg bitch can put a bullet in my brain without even having to break a robotic sweat!"
There was a pause filled with only the sound of air rushing through the broken window and flared nostrils. Nick bared his teeth and kicked at the floorboard.
"Fine," he growled. "You want to know the truth? Well, for one thing, you're right, I'm not just some random soldier. I'm third in command of the entire eastern seaboard resistance. And your robot girlfriend over there?"
"Stop calling her names!"
"He's being literal this time."
Daria turned to Jane in shock. "What?!"
"That's right," Nick said nastily. "See, I'm third in command. Your second? Your right-hand man? That's a guy by the name of Trent Lane. He inherited the position after this metal bitch killed his sister and took her place. His sister and your wife, the very real Jane Lane."
"My . . . wife?!"
"2002, you graduate from Lawndale High School," the Terminator said. "Later that year, you start attending Raft College in Boston as a English major, Education minor. 2003, you meet Jane Lane, who is attending school at nearby Boston Fine Arts College as an Art major, Philosophy minor. 2005, you and Jane begin a romantic relationship. 2010, you and Jane are married in a small civil ceremony. Later that year, you move back to Lawndale to be closer to your families. The move is how you survive Judgment Day in 2011, as Lawndale is not destroyed in the nuclear exchange.
"2013, you and Jane are incarcerated in Skynet's Megasear Work Camp. 2015, you and Jane escape and found the East Coast Resistance Army. 2024, I am constructed. I terminate Jane Lane and infiltrate the resistance to perform intelligence and espionage for Skynet."
"We discovered it pretty quick," said Nick. "Tagged it, bagged it, and reprogrammed it. You were devastated, of course . . . but then you went straight batshit insane. Started treating the Jane-bot like it was your own personal doll. You'd talk to it and only it for hours on end. You'd dress it up like Janey, make it wear her old clothes. Stuff like what it's got on now, in fact, including the earrings, so looks like it's still in the habit. You even had a surgeon fix its face up so it looked like Jane when you first met her and one of the tech guys go in and change the color of its eyes. How sick is that?
"Everyone was concerned, but eventually they decided it was all for the best!" Nick snorted. "After Janey died, your tactics had been slipping, and your plans failing. You and she always used to work things out together, but without her . . . well, anyway, once you started pitching woo at the machine, things started picking up again. I was the only one who still thought that you going moony over your dead wife's killer twin was absolutely crazy! So when you got the brilliant idea to send it back to protect you in the past a few years later, I decided to take matters into my own hands.
"That's why I got here later than it," he explained. "I'm not actually supposed to be here. I had to sneak into the time displacer and port myself back. I didn't know it had been sent back a few weeks early, so I popped up too late to stop it from finding you. I decided I'd go ahead and use it to get you relatively safe, but after we do that, we're dumping the metal before it starts screwing you up a quarter-century early."
Daria looked back and forth between man and machine with a look of total disgust. "You are a complete asshole," she told Nick, who shrugged. "And you . . . " she started to say to Jane but broke off with a shake of her head, unable to find the right words to express herself. "After we get rid of the thing chasing me, I want both of you gone. Out of my life, effective immediately. I haven't known her for one week yet, or you for even a full day, and you've both managed to-"
"Cop," Nick said worriedly as looked out the back windshield.
"Don't try to change the subject!"
"No, seriously, we've got a cop behind us!"
Daria huffed and turned to look. To her surprise, a police car was indeed coming up fast on their rear.
"It's not a cop," Jane informed them. "Take the wheel."
Daria slid over the seat to hunker down in the back without having to be told. Nick reached over and grabbed the steering wheel, then shifted under Jane and into the driver's seat while she crawled over him to the passenger side.
"This conversation isn't over!" Daria yelled from the backseat. "I've got a lot more nasty things to say to you!"
"Yah, yah," Nick said as he pushed the accelerator down.
Jane rolled down the passenger side window and leaned out, pistol in hand. The squad car closed in frighteningly fast and rammed their back bumper, causing Nick to swear and Daria to shriek. Jane lifted herself up so that she was sitting on the door, then began to spray semi-automatic fire into the hood of the pursuing vehicle.
The other triple-8 backed away and swung around to the right before picking up speed again. Traffic was sparse, and Jane calculated that the other car would be able to easily run them off the road if given a chance. Switching in a fresh clip, she aimed at the cab of the car and fired twice, causing the safety glass in the windshield to spiderweb instantly.
As the Tiffany machine busied itself tearing the windshield out completely, Jane braced herself as well as she could and shot three more times, this time at the other car's front tire. It popped after the second shot, making the car swerve back and forth until the triple-8 wrested it back under control. It pulled back again, the rim spitting sparks as the tire's remenants tore away, but stayed right on their bumper.
Return fire erupted from the police car, shattering the back windshield and making holes in the trunk. Daria frantically wiped chunks of glass from her jacket, and Nick ducked down further in his seat.
"Dammit, get rid of that thing already!" he shouted.
In response, Jane clambered all the way out of the window and pulled herself up on the roof. Her balance systems allowed her to remain upright even as Nick started evasive maneuvers. Bullets flew around her, but the few that hit weren't enough to push her off as she worked her way down to the trunk. She shot into the police car's hood a few more times as she took step after careful step.
By the time she reached her new perch, small tendrils of smoke were curling out of the bulletholes and from the sides of the hood. She was close enough by this time to see the damage that had been done to the other triple-8. Its endoskeleton was still intact, but it had lost too much skin to heal over.
Putting her empty pistol back in her waistband, Jane kneeled down and punched her hand through the metal of the trunk lid she was standing on, then gripped the torn edge to steady herself. The triple-8 realized what she was about to do, but didn't hit the brakes fast enough. Jane plunged her other hand into the police car's hood. When the car rapidly decelerated, the hood ripped away and stayed in Jane's fist. The thick, oily smoke that it had been redirecting poured straight up into the triple-8's view, forcing it to stop completely.
Jane slid back into the car through empty back window frame. "Are you harmed?" she asked Daria.
"No," the girl said, checking herself over. "I think I'm okay."
Nodding curtly, Jane stepped over into the front passenger seat. Once she was seated, she started pulling off the ripped shreds of the skin on her fingers and throwing them out the window.
"Is it dead?" Nick asked.
Jane shook her head. "Negative. It is inconvenienced, but only until it can find another mode of transportation."
"What do we do now?" Daria asked as pulled herself up and buckled in.
"I'm thinking we keep driving until we run out of either gas or road," Nick said in exasperation. "But I'm willing to entertain any other ideas!"
Daria thought for a second, then asked, "Where does the real Jane live?"
"Except that one! Has the last half hour not taught you anything? If you go where it expects you might be, it's going to be there, too!"
"I think Daria may have the correct idea," Jane said.
Nick threw a hand up in the air. "Oh, well, there's a big damn surprise!" he yelled sarcastically. "Daria's pet robot takes her side!"
"Look, you said my leadership abilities were better when Jane was around, right?" Daria said, trying to stay reasonable. "And we know that Skynet has sent someone to kill her before . . . or after, or whatever. If I drop off the radar, doesn't that make her the next target? A stunted opponent may not be as good as a dead opponent, but it's better than an opponent running at one hundred percent. To cripple me, it'll go after her!"
"It's what I would do," Jane added.
Nick fumed. "She's in the city," he grudgingly admitted.
"This city?" Daria asked.
"Yes, this city!" he snarled. "It'll probably take us about an hour to get there, including stops to get a different car and pick up some better weapons. We just have to hope the machine wastes some time looking for us before deciding to go after Janey."
Daria was suddenly worried. "We might be too late anyway," she said. "Could Skynet have already sent another one after her?"
"Unlikely," said Jane. "The orders we intercepted concerned you alone, and given the proximity between you and the human Jane, Skynet would consider it more efficient to have a single agent perform both terminations."
"I guess we'll know for sure when we get there," Nick said. He took a sharp turn onto an adjoining highway and started looking for an exit into the city proper.
Trent nearly ran straight over the man standing in the doorway in his hurry to get out of the apartment. He backed up, apologized, and was about to rush off when he noticed who it was.
"Oh, hey, Nick," he said, his normally stoner-like voice raised in apprehension. "Didn't see you there. You do something with your hair? Looks good."
Nick gaped at him, looking as if he'd seen a ghost. Collecting himself quickly, he said, "No, it's cool, man. Is there something wrong? Where's Janey? I just went by the school, and they wouldn't-""
"The school just called and said the cops picked her up . . . " Trent trailed off as he started to notice other things different about his friend besides the grey streaking the man's hair. Stubble marked his usually clean-shaven face, he seemed bulkier under the longcoat he was wearing, and there were wrinkles around his eyes and mouth. "Nick, man, you're not usin' again, are you?"
"Jane is with the cops?!" Nick said in shock.
Jane Lane sighed and tapped a fingernail on the table. It had been almost an hour since the police had dragged her out of class, and she wasn't happy about it at all.
Not that being out of school early wasn't great, but getting called to the principal's office and taken away by two uniformed officers wasn't exactly her idea of fun. They had set her in the interrogation room that she was currently occupying and said that they would try and get everything done and over with just as soon as they could contact her parents.
Hah! Good luck with that, she thought grimly. Or finding anyone else in my family. Everyone else is gone and Trent's probably sleeping through each and every ring of the phone.
Her fingers itched. They hadn't let her bring in her sketchbook or pencils, and her frustrated state demanded to be expressed somehow. She briefly considered fogging the two-way mirror with her breath and doodling on that, but she figured that the cops wouldn't appreciate it too much.
Though she couldn't really see why not. The room she was in was grey, dull, and lifeless, an affront to her artistic sensibilities. A few fog doodles could do nothing but liven up the place.
A series of pops followed by screams filtered through the room's heavy door. Jane sat up, her eyes wide. Living in the part of the city she lived in, she had come to accept the sound of gunfire as being part of the background, like the sound of cars driving past her apartment building. The two often went hand in hand, in fact.
Where she should not be hearing gunshots, she knew, was in a police station. More pops sounded out, closer this time and followed by heavy footfalls and swearing going past the interrogation room door. Within moments, a chorus of firecrackers had been lit in the hallways, and it was still getting closer and closer.
Jane looked around wildly, looking for an escape. She knew the mirror wasn't an option. If she tried to smash it with a chair, it would simply bounce off. All of the vents were high up on the wall and far too small to crawl through, even with her skinny frame. The table turned out to be too heavy for her to flip over and use as a shield.
Eventually she just pushed herself into a far corner and hoped that whatever was going on wouldn't stick its head into the room with her.
Luck was not on her side. The chaos transpring on the other side of the wall traveled straight up to her door, then fell silent. The doorknob turned, a loud crack echoing in the room as the engaged lock snapped apart.
A monstrosity stepped through. It looked roughly female, but it looked like most of its feminine traits had been blown away in an explosion. A metal skeleton stood before her, regarding her with one dark brown almond shaped eye and a perfectly round orb with a pinprick of red light shining from the center.
It raised its hand and leveled a pistol at her. She screamed.
Jane suddenly plowed into the monster's side in an amazing flying tackle and disappeared down the hallway.
It took Jane a few seconds to fully process this. She was still standing in the corner, breathing heavily from fright and shock, but she had also seen herself come out of nowhere and attack the monster. Her mind flashed back to the ride to the station earlier. One of the police officers had asked her offhandedly if she had a twin sister. At the time, she'd though it was just a bizzare non-sequitur and had merely ignored the man, but now . . .
Just as she was getting up the courage to step away from corner and look down the hall, Nick burst in, looking haggard and breathing hard.
At least she thought it was Nick at first. Nick Campbell was one of her brother Trent's friends. They played in a band together. And while this man looked just like Nick, he was obviously old enough to be Nick's father. She was about to ask if he was Nick's father when he interrupted her.
"Janey, thank God," he said, then held out his hand. "Come with me if you want to live."
Jane's mind raced, trying to figure out what was going on, but an adequate explanation escaped her. Finally deciding that she had fallen asleep while waiting for someone to check up on her, she hesitantly walked over to Nick and took his hand.
"Usually when I'm having this dream, I'm wearing pink taffeta," she said distantly.
"Uh . . . right." Nick pulled her close, putting a protective arm around her and rushing her down the hall. "Now, Janey, there's gonna be some nasty stuff coming up here. Just be strong, okay? You can close your eyes if it helps. We're going to get you out of here."
When they turned a corner and stepped into a large office space, Jane realized that "nasty stuff" didn't quite cover it all. The walls were covered with blood. Desks were turned over everywhere, and many of them had bodies draped over them. Officers, detectives, secretaries . . . if anyone had been left alive, Jane couldn't tell. Everywhere she looked, she saw death. A sharp keening filled the air, and it took her a second to realize it was coming from her throat.
"I'm sorry, sweetie," Nick was saying. "I know. I know. But don't you worry, this isn't gonna happen to you. I'm sorry you had to see this, sorry it had to happen, but the machine figured out where you were before we did. We couldn't save them, but we're gonna save you. We'll get you through this." He tried to push her on, but she balked, staring around with tear-filled eyes.
"What happened here?!" she demanded. "Why did that girl look like me?! Who killed all these people?!"
"I can explain everything," Nick told her, "but we have to get out of here first. You're in danger here. Trent's outside. We can't keep him waiting."
At the mention of Trent's name, Jane's expression cleared up. She looked up at him and said, "Let's get the hell out of here."
Nick grinned. "Now that's the Janey I know!" Grabbing her hand again, he quickly moved through the building with her running right alongside him. Another hallway, the booking area, then the lobby, and they were out. Two of the station's four front doors had been almost completely obliterated, allowing them to leap out between the remains.
Sitting in the parking lot right at the foot of the stairs leading up to the doors was a dark green SUV. Standing halfway up the stairs was Trent and a brunette girl that Jane didn't recognize.
"I told you to stay in the car!" Nick yelled as they approached the other two. Both of them ignored him. Trent ran up and grabbed Jane in a giant bear hug while the girl simply goggled at them.
"Are you okay?" Trent asked her as he tried his best to crush her ribs. "Are you hurt? Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Jane said, pushing him back before he could suffocate her. "But what's going on here? Who are these people?"
"It's a long story, Janey," said Trent. "They'll have to tell it to you, but it's true. They've got this robot thing, right, and it looks just like you. Which is pretty cool, when you think about it-"
"Run now, talk later!" Nick called out. "Everyone in the car!"
Daria had expected the human version to look the same as the cyborg, but it was still a shock to see Jane run into the police station wearing all black, including gloves and sunglasses, and then come back out wearing a dark red t-shirt and bluejeans. Besides their clothing and the expressiveness of their faces, they truly could have been identical twins. The effect was made even stronger by the fact that they were both wearing the exact same style boots and earrings.
Daria was unable to tear herself away from the sight of the other girl and her brother until Nick made the order to leave.
"Wait!" she exclaimed. "What about the other Jane?"
"I already told you we were ditching her!" Nick yelled as he started pulling open the SUV's doors. "We're just doing it a little early now! And you hear those sirens? That's all those other cops in the city heading straight this way! We don't-"
The two Terminators burst out of a nearby window, still locked in battle. Jane landed on top, holding Tiffany by the throat and bashing its skull with her gloved fist over and over. Tiffany lifted its legs up at an impossible angle, grabbed Jane's head between its ankles, and pulled her backward.
After they finished flipping over, Jane was on all fours and Tiffany was standing, the other cyborg's head still caught between its feet. It reached down and started hauling Jane up bit by bit, moving her neck toward the razor sharp blades mounted between its thighs. Jane grabbed at its calves and entwined her fingers in the exposed machinery there. Gears whirred and ground audibly as the two triple-8s entered a contest of strength.
"Hey, tin tits!" Nick yelled. Tiffany turned its head to see that he was hefting a riot shotgun its way. "Say hello to my leetle friend!"
Metal slugs began bouncing off of its endoskeleton. The damage was minimal at worst, but the machine realized it was only meant as a distraction when Jane pulled its legs wide to free her head. She cocked a fist back and planted it right into the other machine's cervix.
"Whoa," Trent said as Tiffany folded in half and flew across the parking lot. "Crotch punch."
The lethal T-888 crashed into the side of a car, denting it in and setting off an alarm. As Jane approached it to continue her attack, it pulled itself out of the wreckage, tore the bent door out of its frame, and swatted Jane with it. She went down to one knee, then tried to stand, but Tiffany smashed her down again, and again. When she was laid out flat on the asphalt, it raised its weapon up and impaled her with one of the door's corners.
Jane reached up to scrabble her hands across the surface of the door that was sticking out of her chest. Her legs kicked uselessly as she tried to lift it out of her. Her movements gradually became more and more feeble until she stopped completely, her limbs dropping lifelessly to the ground.
The Tiffany Terminator stepped around the twisted metal and advanced on the humans.
"Time to go," Nick said quietly. "Get in the Goddamned car."
No one argued.
The machine was certain that if it could feel annoyance, it would be feeling it at that moment. What should have been a simple elimination had turned into a series of unnecessary setbacks. But no more. The other T-888 was down for good. The resistance soldier would put up a fight, but the other three had no combat experience. Their deaths were assured.
The SUV squealed its tires getting out of the parking lot, but the machine easily caught up with it before it could pick up a decent amount of speed. With a prodigious leap, the machine landed on the back of the vehicle. It climbed up to the top, pushed its hand through the roof, and peeled the metal back.
The two females were sitting in the back seat, looking up with expressions of terror. Trent Lane was driving, and Nicholas Campbell was twisted around in his seat, aiming his shotgun upward. The first shot glanced off the side of its skull harmlessly. The second hit it in the chest, burying itself deeply in the chunk of flesh still attached there and forcing the machine back almost enough to push it off the vehicle.
As it leaned back down to swipe at Daria, its primary target, a third slug destroyed its exposed eye and bounced around in the socket. Warning messages started flaring across its consciousness and its visual feed stuttered violently. The shock dampener attached to its chip barely kept it from blacking out completely.
It could distantly hear Campbell shouting something about the emergency brake, then the entire vehicle entered a spinout followed by a heavy impact. In its disoriented state, the machine was unable to keep its hold and flew off, landing several meters away.
By the time it stood up, its systems had managed to realign themselves. Through its one good eye, it could see that the SUV had crashed into a fence on the side of the road. The machine itself had landed on the edge of a construction area, half-built walls surrounding it.
The vehicle's front airbags had deployed, and the females had both been wearing their seatbelts, but the machine could see that all four humans were still collecting themselves. It moved toward them swiftly, confident that its mission was finally near completion.
Jane came back online just in time to see the SUV speed off with the other triple-8 latched onto the back. Her strength restored, she reached up and pushed the bent door out of the cavity it had cut into her chest right above her main power cell.
Several police cars swerved into the parking lot moments later, but she was already gone, running through a back alley while carrying the car door on her back. A nearby crash caught her attention and she turned toward it. A chain link fence spanned the end of the alley, but she cleared it in a single jump and landed amidst the construction equipment on the other side.
Taking only a second to assess the situation, she swung around in a circle and tossed the car door like a discus. It cut through the air unnoticed by the triple-8 bearing down on the humans she had been reprogrammed to protect.
The impact was impressive, nearly cutting the other machine in half. It hit the dirt several yards away and skidded along the ground before crashing to a stop against a stack of girders.
As Jane marched over to the Tiffany Terminator, Nick had dislodged himself from the SUV and climbed over the torn chain link that they had run into. He matched her stride, holding his shotgun aimed at the metal they were bearing down on.
Tiffany was dragging itself along the ground, pulling the door and its lower half along on two thick cables that ran between the top and bottom sections of its broken spine. It looked up at the human and cyborg, an electronic buzzing projecting from its damaged voice box. Jane stepped on its hands, pushing them down into the dirt. Nick pulled out a knife and crouched down to pop a circular lid out of the right side of its skull. Just before he pulled out its neural net processor, it tried to speak in a grating, clicking voice.
"Dooooeeezzzz thiiiiiizzzz dreeeezzzzz makk meeeee loooooch faaaaaaaaaaat?"
Nick yanked the chip out, and the machine sagged to the ground, dead.
The double woop woop of a police siren echoed across the construction yard. Nick and Jane turned to see that Daria, Trent, and the human Jane had climbed over the fence as well, and they were outlined by red and blue lights flashing from the street. Nick gestured for everyone to follow him and started running the opposite direction.
The mechanical Jane threw the ruined car door to the side, lifted the triple-8's halves across her shoulders, and quickly moved to bring up the rear as they disappeared into depths of the city's alleyways.
"Detective Smythe speaking."
"Hey, Jim, how's the leg treating you?"
"Oh, Cap, hello. Not too badly, all things considered. Have you had a chance to read my report yet?"
"That's why I'm calling you, actually. Ah . . . "
"I swear to you that every word in there is true."
"Look, I'm not going to sugarcoat things here. I'm not the only one who read it. Chief Masters got hold of a copy, too, and he's none too happy with you right now. He's suggesting that after your medical leave is over, you should take an extra week of psych leave. So you can think things over, y'know, maybe try a crack at another version of your report."
"There isn't another version, Captain. That's what happened. Have you talked to Parks and Wheeling yet? They'll tell you the same thing I-"
"That's what I'm trying to get at here, Jim. I've got their reports right here in front of me next to yours, and they tell quite a different story. And without any hard evidence, it's your word against theirs."
"'Hard evide-'?! What about the squad car's cameras?"
"Weren't rolling. And believe you me, both of those officers are gonna be getting a talking to about that particular screw up."
"The ripped off doors?! The human-sized indentation in the truck?! Almost an entire police station dead, and no sign of the small army that would be needed to pull that off with no casualties of their own?"
"Okay, Jim, look, I'm not saying that there isn't something funny going on here. Trust me, it stinks to high heaven, and I know it stinks. I can smell it, too. But I think we're going to be able to find a perfectly reasonable explanation without jumping straight to some killer robot girl. I mean, come on, listen to the words I just said. 'Killer robot girl'. Don't you think there's the slightest chance that maybe, just maybe, it was a hallucination brought on by shock or blood loss?"
" . . . "
"Ah, well, it doesn't much matter anyway. The whole thing's been taken out of our hands. The FBI muscled their way in here earlier, said they were sending out some agent of theirs to look into it. He'll be here in a couple of days, probably want to ask you a few questions. I'd suggest that you remember that proposed psych leave and forget about the androids. We lost a lot of good men and women the other day. I'd hate to lose another one. Got it?"
" . . . got it. Yes, sir. Goodbye, sir."
Smythe turned off his cellphone. A few seconds later, he threw it against the wall, smashing it.
The night sky lit up as the Thermite flared its way through the machine's remains.
The T-888 Jane stared down intently into the pit as it burned, making sure that every last bit melted away. After the job was finished, the only parts left of the Terminator that had called itself Tiffany Blum-Deckler would be the few Jane had used to repair herself.
The human Jane stood between Trent and Daria on the other side of the pit, holding their hands and whispering occasionally into Daria's ear. Daria nodded each time the other girl spoke, but otherwise stared off into the distance. She didn't seem to be looking at anything in particular, as there was nothing particular to look at out in the middle of the dusty plains outside the city.
As the light of the Thermite died off, she disengaged her hand from Jane's and walked over to the van they had been riding around in for the past week. She leaned her back against the side of the vehicle and hugged her arms together to ward off the night's chill.
"So, we finally got tired of the whole name confusion thing and decided to call her Elizabeth," she said. "Or Liz. Whichever you prefer."
"Liz works," said Nick, picking a bit of dinner out of his teeth. "Jane's middle name, right?"
Daria nodded. "She says she's going to do something with her hair, too, so we can tell them apart. which reminds me, we might want to look into getting her a new eye soon. The blue is nice, I guess, but the glow is a little weird. We'll probably have to grab one from a medical cadaver or something. She said it's best if it's the real deal."
Nick didn't answer, leading to a long pause.
"So, you've finally accepted that she's coming with us?" Daria asked.
He snorted. "Just got tired of hearing myself say the same damn arguments over and over," he told her. "The metal drove you crazy once, it'll do it again. Et cetera, et cetera."
Daria leaned over and plucked at Nick's coat. "Hey, when we first met, you told me about all the changes in the timeline that had happened around Connor, right?"
"Who told you about those changes?"
"You did," he said with a shrug.
"And who told me? And when?"
Another shrug. "Connor. And I dunno . . . a few years back, my time, I guess. He knew we were getting close to the time displacer over here. Wanted to make sure we were prepared."
"And did it never occur to you that maybe all that time I spent with Liz was preparation?" asked Daria. "All those hours spent talking to her. Getting her face altered. Even changing her eyes to a more non-threatening color, just in case . . . couldn't I have simply been setting her up to be sent back in case Skynet tried something with me like it did with Connor?"
Nick screwed his face up. "I dunno about the eyes thing," he said. "That just seems plain old crazy to me."
"Okay, granted. But on all the rest, maybe future me wasn't all crazy, she just wanted to be crazy prepared," she finished with a smug smirk.
"Yah, okay, maybe," he admitted. "Hell, for all I know, she also meant for me to go back. Security seemed kind of lax when I broke in."
Daria laid her head on Nick's shoulder. "If she did, I'm glad," she said. "I don't think Liz and I would've made it on our own. You saved all our skins a couple of times yourself."
"All in the line of duty, ma'am," Nick said, patting her arm. "So," he said into the silence that followed, "you and Janey seem to be getting pretty close."
"Not the way you're probably thinking," Daria said dourly. "We're getting to be friends, that's all. This may shock and surprise you future folk, what with all your fancy high-tech knowledge of what's to come, but I'm not gay."
"I know," Nick said with a nod. Daria arced an eyebrow at him. "Janey told me once, a long time ago," he explained. "I asked you about it later. Know what you said?"
"You said, 'Sometimes love is more important than sexuality'."
"'Love'?" Daria frowned and turned her face away. "Doesn't sound like something I'd say."
Nick shifted, bracing himself better against the side of the van. "People change," he said. "Some of us used to play bass guitar in a band."
"You'll have to prove that to me one of these days."
He laughed. "Maybe, boss. May-be."
The machine scanned the house across the street, being careful not to move too far out of the night shadows. The row of numbers alongside the front door completed its identification of the residence as 1111 Glen Oaks Lane, its target destination. It stepped away from the trees and prepared to cross the street, enter the house, and fulfill its mission.
Its sensors tripped an alarm as it stopped in mid-stride. Several of its internal mechanism had ceased to function, cut off from the main power flow. It looked down to find a long, silvery blade protruding a few feet out of its chest, explaining the discrepency.
The metal of the blade started to flow around its body in a circle as the blade shortened. The machine itself was wrenched around a full 180 degrees. Once it was turned, the metal reformed into the blade, only now the implement was sticking out of its back.
The haft of the blade was a human wrist, metal and flesh blended seamlessly into one another. The wrist belonged to a thin young girl wearing a denim jacket. Twin braids swung freely at the sides of her face. She tilted her head as she regarded the machine thoughtfully, then lifted her free hand and waggled her index finger back and forth.
The liquid metal moved again, this time forming a vertical blade inside the machine. It twitched once as all of the power leads to its nuclear power cell were severed, then slumped lifelessly as the cell itself was forcibly removed.
Stacy smiled at the miniature power plant she held as her blade melted back down into the shape, size, and texture of a human hand. She hummed vacantly to herself as she simultaneously planned out the disposal of the machine's body and the Fashion Club auditions to replace Tiffany. They were both important jobs, necessary to the continued well-being of her ward and her mission.
She had promised that she would take care of Quinn. And that was exactly what she was going to do.
Roland 'Jim' Lowery
January 8, 2010