The smell of smoke an destruction lay heavy over the ashen remains of what had once, in a more prosperous time, been called Los Angeles. Dark, crumbling ruins loomed under a hazy night sky, their broken facades lit by the glow of fires burning all around. Hungry flames licked greedily at the curling billows of black smoke rising in dozens of places stretching to the horizon. No shred of light seemed to glow anywhere that was not the light of fire and destruction. The world was covered in flame and ash, red and black, dressed in the colors of a new hell.
Scattered among the old wreckage was the new. Towering, tracked machines of cold metal sat idle or destroyed among the forlorn ruins, their huge structures brisling with guns and sensors, the implements of killing. Scorch marks tarnished their smooth finishes, sometimes mixed with the small, almost inconsequential stains of dried human blood. Other machines of various designs lay smashed where they had fallen out of the sky, their huge roaring engines now silent and in pieces on the scorched earth. Lethal metal skeletons, with their skull-like faces seemingly grinning in rigor-mortis, lay strewn haphazardly all around, frozen in their last deadly intent. None of the machines had exterior controls that were accessible on the smooth metal. There were no cockpits, no remote devices for human direction. Their slender forms were designed instead with no thought towards human discretion or interaction beyond the interaction of death. With such intent still lurking within their dead shapes, they lay motionless over the land as far as the eye could see, as flames reflected in their smooth finishes.
Moving among them, dwarfed by the towering bulks of the idle machines, were the victors of the fierce battle that had finally ended. Haggard men and women, worn deep by combat and fear, walked through the demolished streets like zombies. Encrusted with dirt and sweat, blood and despair, they hardly noticed their surroundings. There was no jubilation in them. No exaltation of victory. Only the memory of the devastating firefight that had raged through the ruins a mere hour ago remained in their thoughts, whispering at the back of their minds like an errant, chill breeze that wouldn't subside. Numb from the battle, the scattered soldiers mechanically probed the wreckage, searching for any active remnants of the destroyed machines which had so mercilessly defended every seemingly insignificant stretch of the scorched city. With no hesitation or remorse, they methodically destroyed any intact metal figure they found. None of the robotic skeletons moved to defend themselves. None cried out as they were shot. Their silver forms lay inert among the corpses of the soldiers they had killed, waiting patiently as the fires continued to dance across their reflective metal. With practiced efficiency, the last dregs of humanity mutilated beyond recognition every cyborg they found, searching every crevice and pile of rubbish.
The humans who had survived knew all too well the tenacity of these machines, and they made certain that any cyborg they found would never threaten them again. They ignored the blood soaked remains of the humans who had died under the cyborg's hands and guns. For those, the threat had ended. The soldiers took what comfort they could in the fact that darkened skies above were clear of movement and sound. As they continued to work under the smothering grip of the night air, a red glow suddenly washed over them, casting long, dark shadows where it seemed light would never shine again. A distant ball of fire slowly rose without a sound on the horizon, followed seconds later by a low rumbling that sounded like the earth itself was in pain. The explosive light lasted only a few seconds, as if only to remind the survivors of the devastation they moved through in the darkness. None of the soldiers flinched or even turned to watch the distant fireball on the ruined horizon. They had other business to attend to.
Kyle Resse felt sore and stiff. No matter how hard he tried he could not force his muscles to relax, even as they seemed to cry out at further exertion. It no longer appeared that his body was capable of any reaction other than constant, instinctive alertness. As Reese stared at the dark, hellish shapes that loomed over him, backlit by distant fires, he could understand why. Massive, tracked forms of the ground Hunter-Killers towered over everything like a silent, mechanized scream. Like embodied obscenities that tore at Reese's life long reflex, a reflex which urged him to run. Motionless gun barrels on either side of the colossal machine before him hung over the ragged forms of Reese and the other soldiers of his unit, spread amongst the ruins. It seemed to watch with cold detachment, as if the wreckage and the idle machines around it were totally natural. Reese, still fighting his instinct to hide, continued his slow approach to the hunter-killer. As he passed at last beyond the threat of those silent guns, his buried fears rose past his discipline and he almost imagined he felt a presence within the machine. A patient malignancy that survived as if it had always existed and always would. Somehow, Reese was certain it was still there, and despondent, he wondered where such evil had originated.
Even with all those dark thoughts moving through Reese's mind, outwardly his face showed nothing. It could have been cast in stone. A painful gash had opened had ripped open his sleeve where stray weapons fire had grazed him in the battle before. The heat of the bolt had cauterized the flesh, so there had been little bleeding. By any measure the pain should have been unbearable, but Reese bore it as he bore the plasm rifle in his hands, as a long-familiar extension of himself that was a common part of existence. That same discipline kept all the exhaustion and fear from his face, even as he moved openly past the lethal hunter-killers around him. However, in some deep, private place he cringed. Partly from the threat of the HK's, and partly from what he saw on the faces of the other humans around him. The same discipline that had kept him alive year after year was reflected in their expressions. A discipline that made them look like machines themselves. In many ways, that was what they had all become.
A thought crossed Reese's mind. Or had the machines become them?
The tiny speaker in his slim headphones suddenly blared to life. A soft background of static hovered behind the distorted voice that came through. The soldiers all around him, hearing the same electronic voice on their headsets, tensed even as he did. Reese gripped his plasma rifle tighter as he listened to the incoming message.
CHARLIE OSCAR to TANGO NOVEMBER 38416, respond... over.
Reese realized he was being addressed specifically and flicked his transmit switch without conscious thought. "Yeah, Tango November 38416 here, go ahead."
The voice which replied did so in a unemotional monotone that spoke of power and quiet authority, a succinct clarity of purpose. It was a voice that Reese instantly recognized.
Reese, I want you in the compound ASAP. Approach the breach from south of the main bunker. Be advised on approach that we still have perimeter teams searching for traps, strays or leftovers that may still be functional. Don't shoot or get shot by any friendlies. will advise all teams of your approach. Confirm, over.
Suddenly Resse became worried as the small electronic voice ended its transmission. A call from John Conner directly to him was unusual. The assault division and insertion teams still had plenty of troops, all closer than him to the breached defenses. Why did they need him in the underground bunker? His concerns distracted him for only a second, then he keyed his mike again.
"Tango November affirms," he said in a dry voice. "ETA ten minutes."
Roger, Charlie Oscar out, came the reply.
Immediately after Conner's voice stopped another began transmitting. ALERT, perimeter teams, advise approach of lone friendly towards the bunker, repeat, all OSCAR KILO squads watch for the approach of a lone...
Reese's thoughts drifted away from the transmission as another explosion nearly a mile away rose into the night sky. Its glow once again bathed the scene around him with a red light, and for a moment he saw the hulking monolith of the main bunker and the tiny perimeter groups around it, still on-guard for approaching cyborgs. The distant explosion sent ominous shadows from the monolith hungrily stretching towards him until the light faded into nothing. Before it faded, the light glittered on the almost non-existent moisture growing in Reese's eyes, as he sadly took in the devastated scene of carnage until it was swallowed by the darkness again.
Reese still held the image in his mind as the full impact of what had happened washed over him. The massive hole blown into the the side of the monolith, the dozens upon dozens of bodies and cyborgs strewn before it, mixed and felled atop one another ,were all burned into his mind with that brief illumination.
The forces of John Conner had finally smashed the central core of SKYNET, and a world of men and women had been reclaimed in the middle of smoke, fire, and ruins. Their attack had come from all points of the compass, inward into the bunker until contact was made. Then, John Conner's forces had purposefully fallen back further than they had approached, drawing out all the HKs form the bunker monolith as small teams secretly slipped inward at great cost to themselves.
The men and women who had fought the rushing tide of HKs had been doomed to slaughter, ordered to fight to the last man in order to draw SKYNET's forces out. The HKs and cyborgs followed their programs without fail, killing the retreating humans until all were dead. The numbers of those mechanical killers had matched and sometimes exceeded the number of soldiers before them by a large margin. It had been a planned slaughter house on an epic scale.
Reese had been part of the the doomed outer diversionary ring. All of them had used every tactic they had learned about night fighting amongst the ruins, retreating as they drew the HKs outward into the shattered remains of L.A. But they had reached a point where they'd been forced to turn and fight , where their lines could spread no thinner and still contain the HKs behind them. A full rout of the humans may have allowed the HKs to return to the bunker, so they had turned and attacked. All the blood-earned tactics taught to them by John Conner had not prevented them from suffering terrible losses.
Reese could still remember the sights and sounds, the smells, as he had gotten the order, turned, and faced his death.
He was running. Running for his life as weapons fire lanced out from behind, impacting all around him and propelling other soldiers running with him far into the air. Then the order came, almost inaudible over the screams and explosions. It was from John Conner, from deep within their expanding circle of forces in a secret underground tunnel with the others of the assault division, wormed in among the ruins. Their scans showed they were out far enough. Time to turn and fight.
Resse darted behind a shattered building and turned to watch the unfathomable approach of the relentless hordes of HK's and cyborgs behind, gleaming with their ghastly grins of death and hateful red eyes. He calmly accepted his own death, even as others died around him.
He reached into his jacket and pulled out a small hand drawn portrait on a yellow, crumpled piece of paper. It was a replica of a picture he had lost years ago in a fire, a picture he had revered, given to him personally by John Conner. When the first had been destroyed, he had already memorized every line, every curve. At first it was out of reverence to John Conner, who had told him the woman depicted was John's mother. But as time had passed, he had become intrigued by the woman in the photograph, by her beauty, her strength, her sadness. After he watched the original picture burn, he was able to sketch a detailed copy from memory, following some need to see her in more than his minds eye. Somehow the image of her anchored him, giving him a glimpse of a life beyond the horror and death he faced every day. He had examined and interpreted every emotion playing across her face in that one moment. Without realizing it, he had grown to love a woman he had never met. He replaced the picture in his jacket, and raised his rifle to face his doom at the hands of the approaching machines.
The swell of HKs and cyborgs swarmed into their positions as the killing suddenly intensified into an orgy-like pitch. The unstoppable machines killed hundreds, all the while surrounded by flames, ruin, blood, the sickly glow of weapons fire darting out. Swarms of running soldiers were dwarfed and cut down beneath their treads and gun barrels. The sounds of explosions and weapons fire fought against the incessant screams of the dying in a world that had gone brutally insane.
From his hunkered down position, Reese fired back at the onslaught. The treads of one HK were almost upon him, and he jumped to the side as it crashed through the wall he hid behind. A flying HK roared overhead like a vengeful angel as he ran, spitting weapons fire that tore through the bodies of others running with him until it was brought crashing down by a missile, landing on a group of soldiers who were clustered back to back.
Reese didn't know what drove him to run, to try to live for a few more seconds. But somehow, it didn't feel right for him to die just then. Holding his rifle tightly, he sped away as blinding explosions erupted all around. As he ran from the kill zone behind him, he smoothly dropped into an exposed basement that opened before his feet. He didn't stop for a second as he burst up over the other side, leaping to level ground. The roar of another flying HK's engines followed him and the ground was peppered with plasma weapons fire, just missing him as more soldiers were shot down around him. Reese saw a nearly intact section of wall and moved to duck behind it for cover from the flying HKs filling the sky. He rounded it at a sprint and pulled himself to a stop in shock as he gazed at what lay beyond the wall.
The horizon before him was filled with the tall, dark forms of Hunter-Killers, coming at them from outside their circle, trapping them in between. In the air, flying death machines searched the ground with spotlights, firing down on the people below. Other soldiers continued to run past Reese as he stood there, right into the second line of HKs where they were smoothly cut down by plasma weapons fire. Without turning, Reese felt the continuing approach of the machines behind him.
Reese again took out the picture, looking calm and out of place in the middle of the hell around him. He took one last look at the drawing he held of Sarah Conner. Her smooth were motionless and serene amidst the flashes and screams surrounding him. Reese was suddenly overwhelmed by the futility of it all, as he realized the time to die had come. A tear tracked down his ash encrusted face as all sound around him seemed to fade to nothing. The tear dropped off his chin as time seemed to slow, falling onto his drawing and distorting it. Reese smudged the highly detailed picture with his finger, the life-like drawing of her face becoming blurred. But even then, given time he could have reproduced it from memory. At that moment before his death, her face was all that existed. Or mattered.
Suddenly sounds rushed back in around him as he realized he was motionless and out in the open. The only thing keeping him alive was the multitude of targets for the HKs to kill. The remaining survivors had pushed together into one screaming cluster, yelling like animals as they died. Methodically, their numbers were quickly being deleted. Reese knew he was next.
A skeletal flash of silver caught his eye as it came up behind him.
The cyborg calmly aimed its huge gun at a crazed soldier crawling away on his stomach a few yards from Reese. Without hesitation it blasted a gaping hole in the man's back and continued to fire until the plasma rifle had disintegrated most of the soldier's body, dotting its smooth metal with small specks of blood. A dozen more skeletal shapes moved to either side, firing at anything that moved. The closest cyborg finally finished with the crawling soldier and turned slowly towards Reese, looking at him with hate-filled red eyes and a devil's grin.
Not yet, Reese thought. He suddenly dropped the picture and raised his rifle as the cyborg sprang at him like a snake. The picture tumbled to the ground as Reese fired, sparks and flashes dancing off the cyborg's charging form in strobe-light succession. Before Reese blinked, the cyborg's metallic hand reached out and crushed the barrel of his plasma rifle, silencing its blazing muzzle. It pushed it aside, quickly lifting its own rifle and centering it one inch from Reese's forehead. Reese looked deep into one of the cyborg's glowing eyes and saw fire deep beyond imagining.
And then... the eye faded.
The hellish world around him fell silent in unison. Searchlights dimmed and died. The only weapons fire that lit the night were those of the few crazed soldiers who were still alive. Not more than two seconds had passed when suddenly several loud crashing sounds erupted all around as the flying HKs above lost all power and fell like rocks. Some exploded into balls of flame, others twisted in on themselves into misshapen scraps of metal.
Resse finally remembered to breathe, but still he didn't move. The motionless cyborg still held its gun muzzle an inch from Reese's head as several seconds passed. Then Reese realized the cyborg was moving. Without twisting a single joint, it feel towards Reese, forcing him to jump out of the way as it hit the ground with a heavy thud.
In the darkened distance, a lone soldier still fired, screaming at some imagined attacker. His crazed shrieks carried across the shadowed battlefield, where all the survivors stood paralyzed in a shock that mimicked the inert machines around them. Another desperate soldier closer to Reese breathed heavily through a mouth flowing with blood. He raised his rifle and fired angry shots into the air as Reese watched.
"Come on, you bastards!" he shouted. "What are you waiting for? Kill us... Do it! Get it over with, we're ready to die!"
He got no response from the machines.
The sound of falling bricks sounded like a roar in the quiet air, and everyone levelled their guns on the wall behind Reese. Reese turned to see the remnants of the wall fall into rubble, collapsing around the tread of a HK that had been in the process of going through it.
The ranting soldier near Reese started shouting again, going up to the other survivors near him. "Don't you believe it! Not for a second! They're just screwing with our heads..."
He yelled at the HK looming over them behind the wall. "Stop toying with us and finish it!"
For several seconds there was only night and silence.
Then the crazed soldier started to laugh and cry simultaneously. Slowly it grew, sounding shallow and empty. In a soft, barely discernible voice, the man spoke again, his voice often broken with soft laughter.
"Don't you see?" he told the rest. "Don't you get it?"
He turned towards a fallen, inert cyborg. "They're laughing at us." The man gazed into its grinning face for a long time, anger building in his eyes until he exploded into violence. Levelling his rifle, he fired a continuous burst into the cyborg, as the other soldiers dove for cover from flying bits of shrapnel. He emptied his rifle the twisted remains of the cyborg, its metal starting to glow orange in spots from the weapons fire. Then he hurled his weapon upon it, where it bounced and clattered of the metal and onto the ashen floor.
"They're laughing at us..." he said with despair, plopping down onto the floor in exhaustion as he put his head into his hands.
There was no celebrating. There was no feeling of release. Without exception the horrors they had witnessed still played behind their tired faces, as they confronted a quieter hell of dormant machines, mangled bodies, fire and ruin. However, they all knew what had happened. John Conner had accomplished his mission. SKYNET had fallen.
Voices burst over all their headphones as orders suddenly poured forth from central command. Soldiers began moving again, vaguely aware of each other in the darkness as they crunched through the rubble. They started the long process of reforming their shattered units and accessing casualties, just as John Conner had taught them. Headphones buzzed with orders.
Reese searched the ground for his drawing, knowing full well how rare paper was. He found its crumpled remains and saw the sketch completely distorted and indiscernible. without a second glance, he crumbled it and threw it away. He didn't need it anyway. Sarah's face was forever imprinted in full detail in his mind.
Reese looked out over the ruins, ruins which for him had always meant fear and death. He stood there alone in the dark. Slowly he accepted the fact that the battle was over.
And quite possibly the war.
"Stand clear! Fire in the hole!"
That latest voice brought Reese out of his reverie of the battle and back to the present. Crews scrambled away from the inert HK he had passed in a haze earlier. KNowing what was coming, Reese dropped to the ground and braced himself. After a few seconds, the charges placed on the HK exploded. The night sky was lit by another rising fireball like those seen on the horizon. Chunks of flaming metal flew over Reese's head like low comets, each trailing a tail of sparks that showered down around him. Explosions just like that one had been erupting sporadically to the horizon for the past hour. Demolition teams were busy destroying any shut down HKs they found, pessimists and pragmatists to the end.