Chapter 7 The Leader Extolled

Sarah felt the acceleration push her back against the seat as the airplane raced down the runway. Perhaps it was the utter relief of Doctor Saluja's report that all traces of the infection were gone. Perhaps it was simply the long delayed relief from cabin fever, the exhilaration of being active again, the satisfaction of having something meaningful to do. Whatever the cause, she found it difficult to restrain her sense of excitement. Sarah Connor was back in the game.

Catherine, of course, was not excited. Catherine didn't get excited. She sat in her seat across the aisle from Sarah and studiously reviewed the files she had brought with her. When the pilot announced that they had reached cruising altitude, Sarah turned to her companion.

"Nice airplane, Catherine."

Catherine smiled faintly. "Gulfstream 200. It can cruise at 500 miles an hour with a range of 3600 nautical miles."

"You don't have to quote the manual," Sarah replied.

"I was just illustrating that if it ever becomes necessary for all of us to leave San Francisco, we can go very far, very fast in this aircraft."

Sarah turned back and looked out the window. Catherine was never going to be a source of amiable chit chat.

All right, Sarah thought, let's get serious then.

"Catherine,you told me that would always answer my questions about the time John spent in the future."

Catherine slowly, almost reluctantly, put down her file. "You saw the scar on his side didn't you?"

Sarah felt her throat constrict. "Yes, I did."

"I have promised to answer your questions and I will. You must know, however, that what I will tell you now is going to be even more painful for you to hear than it was the last time."

"I must know, Catherine. Please tell me what happened to my son."

"As you wish. We had been in the future for just over a year. By that time your son and John Henry had met. John had learned that Cameron still existed in the chip she shared with John Henry. He had even been able to talk to her. John had been promoted again to Sergeant. He was rapidly gaining a reputation for courage and skill."

*******

Captain Kyle Reese, the newly minted commander of J company, pushed aside the worn curtain and entered the battalion adjutant’s office. He found his brother staring morosely at the maps spread before him. "What’s the matter big brother? You look like your dog died."

Major Derek Reese, the equally new battalion adjutant was unamused.

"Does the concept of ************ mean anything to you?"

"You don't like Operation Redemption?"

"I think it stinks from the head down. I think Central Command has lost its freakin’ mind. Just look at this."

Derek pointed disgustedly at the situation maps bearing the marks of the most recent troop movements.

"We are pulling almost the entire Central LA force out into the open to launch an offensive on nothing more than a guess."

"Oh come on Derek," Kyle tried to sound optimistic. "The intelligence estimates say--"

"Intelligence estimates!" Derek spit on the floor. "General Allen Rankins and his band of misfits. They are in the intelligence unit only because not a single one of them is fit to lead men in a fight. Just because we haven't had any machine activity in Sector Twelve for a month or so, these geniuses decide that Skynet has shifted its forces away and we can grab a little territory."

"You think it’s a trap don't you?"

"God-**** right I do. I think when our people move into that sector they are going to find far more than they bargained for."

Kyle looked down at the map. "So what do we do?"

"What we are ordered to do," Derek answered wearily. "Our battalion has full responsibility for whole right end of our line from demarcation point 15 to 27. Your company has to cover the very end of the line and straddle that old causeway ravine that runs right through there. Too much ground, not enough men."

Derek shook his head. "The only good thing I can say is that if I'm right any heavy fighting should be north of you. What you have to do little brother is keep your men loose and alert. If the metal throws us back in the North and we have to retreat all of you on this end of the line will have the farthest to go to get back to the tunnels."

"Don't worry about us, Major," Kyle tried to sound confident. "We'll stay frosty." Kyle turned to leave and then stopped. "I just you wish you hadn't saddled me with General Rankin's son as one of my two lieutenants."

"Wasn't my call, Kyle. The Colonel got heavy pressure from Command. Funny isn't it? We are supposed to be in a war for the survival of humanity and daddy can still get his ******* son promoted."

"Oh, it will work out, Derek. I put Johnny Connor's platoon in the Legend's section. That might give him a little backbone."

"Johnny?" Derek laughed. "Lieutenant Rankin better worry more about Sergeant John Connor than any pitiful metal."

"That's the idea," Kyle answered with a grin. Looking at his watch he noted the time and held out his hand. "Jump off in an hour so I'd better get moving."

Derek took Kyle's hand and pulled him into a hug. "Watch your ass little brother."

"You too Derek."

*****

"Sarge, we are at the Lieutenant's stop coordinates."

Private Perry Monroe looked up from his hand-held GPS unit in time to see his Platoon Sergeant shake his head.

"No, not here," John said. "The field of fire isn't clear and we have nothing to anchor our right against." John peered through his night glasses. "We'll move forward another thirty yards."

Corporal Carl Melanise chuckled audibly. An enthusiastic collector of irony, he enjoyed watching the strained relationship between Connor and Lieutenant Rankin. "The Legend isn't going to like you disregarding his orders...again, John."

"As if I care. Besides he'll never know." John gestured toward a shallow ridge line extending away into the darkness on their left.

"He’s squatting up there on his little hill with the rest of our section to protect him. He won't even come down to check on us."

The platoon moved forward briskly the additional thirty yards before John called the halt. Looking about at the terrain he nodded affirmatively.

"Okay, this is where we need to be"

"Jaime?"

"Right here, Sarge," answered Corporal Jaime Delong.

"I want a single defensive line stretching from that pile of rubble in the South up to about here. Jaime, you put your squad on the right, Carl, you take the left. Both of you put your heavy rifle toward the center. Tell Timmy to set up his aid station over there in that sunken ground behind that fallen tree. Eddie, get on the com and tell Lieutenant Rankin we are in position."

"Don't you want to talk to him, Sarge?" Private Edward Calhoun's grin was a blend of equal parts affectionate humor and unrestrained mischief.

"Calhoun, if there was a rank below private I'd bust you down to it." John snapped at his com operator while barely suppressing his own grin.

"Questions?"

"Okay people let’s move like we have got a purpose."

******

"I had to wait until there was a significant amount of activity in the platoon area before I could approach John. I had taken the form of a young soldier I had seen in the tunnels. I was assuming that in the dark no one would notice John talking to just another one of his soldiers."

Catherine paused to see if Sarah had any comment. Then she continued her account.

******

John flinched as the young soldier spoke in a feminine voice with a discernible Scottish accent.

"If you are going to change forms, Catherine, why don't you change voices as well?"

"I would but this is the most reliable way of ensuring that you know who you are speaking with."

John hurriedly looked about. Everyone was busily moving into position ignoring his conversation.

"We'd better be quick. What is it you need to tell me?"

"John Henry has been monitoring the radio contact with Skynet's ground forces. He is convinced that the Resistance troops are moving into a trap." Catherine paused. "John Henry believes that a key part of that trap will be sprung right here."

"Here?" John strained to keep his voice low.

"There is a terminator force massing out to your front. It is a mixed group of 700s, Triple-8s and cyborg infiltrators. It will wait until your main forces are fully engaged in the North. Then they will try to sweep past you and drive for the tunnels."

"San Pedro on a larger scale," John whispered.

In her male soldier persona, Catherine nodded affirmatively. He is quick, she thought. He sees the implications immediately.

"If they get into the tunnels at the same time that Skynet drives the main Resistance forces back..."

John finished the statement, "There could be widespread panic. The main Resistance army might break and we could lose the entire Central LA Command."

John recoiled from the ultimate conclusion. They could lose the war today.

"How large is the terminator force moving against me?"

"John Henry cannot be precise. He believes that it is between 60 to 70 total."

John felt his stomach twist into a knot. Sixty to seventy machines against his twenty-nine men.

"If they come all at once they will roll right over us."

“John Henry does not believe they will do that. At least not at first. They will try to conceal the magnitude of their attack so the Resistance command will not recognize the threat until it is too late."

*******

"How did John take what you had told him?" Sarah asked.

"Calmly," Catherine replied. "I noticed that about your son very early. In combat he responds to threats, to challenges, with an almost inhuman poise. Indeed, his sense of calm detachment seems to increase with the gravity of the threat."

*****

Catherine disappeared into the night leaving John alone to stare off into the blackness. There were no good options. If John Henry was right, his platoon was about to be attacked by a vastly superior metal force. If he retreated, it would simply throw open the door Skynet planned to blast through. Rankin had the remaining five platoons of the section up on the ridge but the Legend would never move down in support on nothing more than John's prediction of an assault. They would have to hold off at least one attack before asking for help.

A low grumbling sound became audible and flashes of light appeared in the northern sky. John glanced at his watch. 11:00 P.M. The main Resistance army was launching Operation Redemption. Skynet would wait until the main force was fully engaged before sending its terminators against him.

John opened his canteen and took a quick swallow. His mouth and throat had suddenly become dryer than he had ever experienced before. Is this fear? he wondered. Was he really nothing more than a terrified eighteen year old kid out of his depth? Maybe he was, but he resolved that no one else would see it.

"Delgado?" John had become accustomed to the fact that no matter what his formal duty assignment happened to be, Ceasar Delgado would always be close enough to respond to his command.

"Right here, Jefe."

"I want you to get Klein, Ruiz and Martinez. Go back to company supply and grab anything that will explode, hand grenades, RPGs, mines, plastique. As much as the four of you can carry and get back here as fast as you can."

"Something up?"

"Maybe. I’ve just got a feeling we are going to need a little more bang for our buck and I don't have time to go through channels."

"Don't worry, Jefe." Delgado's perpetual grin took on a piratical gleam. "Me and the boys are used to making our own channels."

By midnight the sounds from the North had become an escalating roar. The sky resembled an approaching dawn. Whatever was happening up there was increasing in intensity with each passing minute. Delgado and his larcenous accomplices had returned with their booty which was spread up and down the line. John had filled the last hour with quietly purposeful activity. He moved up and down the platoon line visiting, inspecting, encouraging, joking--whatever was necessary to keep his men loose and alert. Some of the troopers sensed that something must be in the air but if the Sarge was cool, then they would be too.

12:35 A.M. The thunder from the North had just gotten even louder when the sun seemed to come out. Two star flares exploded in the sky over the platoon line illuminating the terrain to their front. And in that gleaming light a line of 700 model terminators, their shining metallic frames abruptly denied by the cloak of darkness, could be clearly seen advancing inexorably toward the platoon line. Thank you, Catherine, John thought. Time to begin the dance.

With their cover ripped away, the terminators opened fire. The advancing metal line blossomed in flame and the angry whine of bullets passing overhead encouraged the platoon troopers to stay low. The crash of gun fire was soon punctuated by the whumping sound of mortar shells exploding as they struck the earth near the platoon's position.

"Hold your fire!" In a low crouch John moved down his line. "Wait until they get closer. Aim for the head or the joints."

John's orders were picked up first by his two squad leaders and then by the troopers themselves. The command echoed up and down the line. "Hold your fire. Let them get closer."

Scanning the ground with his night glasses, John watched as the machines closed the distance. So focused was his concentration, he barely heard the screams of pain as the mortar exploded somewhere off to his right. There would be time later to look into that.

Okay, he thought, that's close enough. "Fire!"

The machine's advance lost momentum as the coordinated rifle fire roared into them. Just as he had stressed in training, John's troopers worked in two-man teams concentrating their fire on one key point; on a head, a knee, a pelvis. The effect on the 700s was striking. Three went down in the first few seconds, their heads blasted away, their chips shattered. Two others collapsed as their knee joints crumbled. Eerily, the crippled machines still tried to crawl forward but their threat was no longer immediate. As John again looked through his glasses, he saw a sheen of silver as something raised up behind one of the 700s. A blur of metallic movement and the terminator's head bounced off into the night. Give them Hell, Catherine.

More than half of the machines in the attack were down. As if recognizing their unexpected failure the terminators began to back away into the night dragging the damaged machines with them.

"How bout that? We beat 'em."

John looked up to see Corporal Melanise kneeling beside him. He was almost ecstatic with relief.

"It won't be that easy next time," John snapped. "Keep focused. What about casualties?"

"None in my squad. I think Jaime's got hit with mortar fire. I don't know how bad."

"I'll go check," John said. "You keep your people alert."

As John moved back down the line he sensed the presence of someone beside him.

"Jefe, one of the guys that got hit was Jesus."

He turned to see Delgado for once without his ever present grin.

"You sure?"

"Yeah."

Men died in battle, John thought. That was non-negotiable. But somehow he had always wanted to believe that his original crew of Delgado, Klein, Ruiz and Jesus Martinez were all invulnerable. His desire had apparently just collided with a bitter reality. He made his way toward the aid station.

Corpsman Timothy Eldridge, all freckles and red hair, looked so much like Opie on the old Andy Griffith show that the men universally insisted on calling him Timmy despite his protest. But no matter how much he appeared to be some lost kid who had stumbled into a fight, when it came to his wounded comrades Timmy was a lion. John had seen him nonchalantly drag a wounded soldier away from a fire fight and tend his wounds oblivious to death raining down all around him. Sometimes John was convinced that Timmy was the bravest man in the platoon. When it came to the wounded Timmy never gave up unless all hope was gone.

It was his knowledge of that dedication that immediately convinced John that nothing could be done for Jesus Martinez. He lay stretched on the ground beside Private Danny Layne who appeared to be unconscious. Timmy was bandaging the arm of another trooper while Jesus' breathing became increasingly labored. Timmy wouldn't be working on a lesser wound if there was anything else he could do for Jesus.

John knelt beside Martinez. "I thought you knew how to duck, Jesus." He fought to keep his voice even.

"Lucky shot," Jesus gasped, a gritty rasp slipping into his voice. He held out his hand and John grasped it.

"You stay loose, Johnny, I'll..."

And then he died.

"Sarge...Sergeant Connor," Edward Calhoun reluctantly interrupted John's moment of grief. "The Lieutenant wants to talk to you."

John's conversation with Lieutenant Larry Rankin did not go well. The Legend flatly refused to believe that the platoon was facing anything more than a diversionary probe.

"Just hold them off as long as you can, then withdraw up here on the ridge."

John was incredulous. "And leave our entire flank open? Lieutenant, they are going for the tunnels. They are trying to do San Pedro again."

Rankin’s humorless laugh coming over a field radio sounded particularly contemptuous. "Nonsense! Their main forces are all up north and we are driving them back. Nothing down here is a threat to the tunnels. Get a grip, Connor."

John fought back the urge to curse at his superior officer. "So you won't send us any reinforcements?"

"Hell no. I'm not weakening this position."

"At least will you call us in some artillery support?"

"I'll do that. Rankin out."

So we are on our own, John thought. As he looked down at his watch the light from a new star flare burst out of the sky. 1:15 AM. Round two was beginning.

The renewed metal attack came from a mixed force. In the lingering light from Catherine's warning flare John could make out a small group of Triple-8s in the center flanked on both sides by the 700s. They surged forward at a faster clip than the first assault. They clearly intended to close with the platoon before it could focus its fire.

"Concentrate on the Triple-8s!" John shouted. Once again his order echoed up and down the line. As the massed fire smashed into them the Triple-8s faltered and their advance slowed. Triple-8s were tougher, better built than the 700s with stronger armor but they were still machines. They would break under the right pressure.

Two of the Triple-8s went down with pelvis or knee damage. At least one more collapsed as its head disintegrated. But the losses weren't stopping their advance. The 700s were still coming as well. They would reach the platoon's line this time. The metal charge had lost some of its precision but all of the machines were within ten yards of the line when the ground exploded. The fruits of Delgado's raid on company supplies had ripened. Land mines, grenades, plastique combined to drop a curtain of flame in front of the terminators.

A human force would have fled in terror. The metal took its losses and pushed on. Decimated by the explosives, individual terminators still stumbled toward the humans. All along the line the fight degenerated into a hellish maelstrom. Screams, curses and prayers filled the air along with the continuing thunder of rifle fire as the troopers fought for their life. In the chaos none saw a silver figure rise from the ground and slash a metal scythe at the back of the Triple-8s. One by one the suddenly bewildered terminators fell.

From his mid point in the line, John allowed himself a sigh of relief. The position was going to hold.

"Sarge! Look out!" The warning cry came from his left. He turned to see the damaged terminator limping toward him. Its leg had been twisted at an angle and the head ravaged by rifle fire. The red eyes no longer gleamed. The mini-cannon it usually carried in its right arm had been shot away. Crippled and blind it was still focused on death. His death.

John looked around and realized that he was standing in a direct line with the aid station. Timmy was crouched beside a wounded trooper completely unaware of the machine coming behind him. If he rolled out of the way the terminator would keep going until it reached Timmy.

No place to run, John thought. Swinging up his rifle he opened fire on the Triple-8. The machine slowed but did not stop. It seemed to have no vulnerable spots left. As it reached him the terminator raised its damaged right arm into the air. Where its weapon had once been a long sharp shard of metal remained. Without sight it flailed wildly searching for something to hit, for something to kill. Trying to backpedal away John felt his boot catch against a stone and then the sharpened metal came slashing down into his side.

The pain was white hot and excruciating. The agony could not be contained and the scream tore from his throat. The force of the impact threw him backward. He landed on his back his weapon somewhere out in the darkness. Still waving its shattered arm the Triple-8 came toward him. Straining to stay conscious John watched his killer approach.

The human form lunged out of the night behind the terminator. It was Carl Melanise. He slapped the magnetic grenade onto the back of the Triple-8's head. He was trying to move away when the machine hit him with its left arm knocking him to the ground.

"Too close, Carl. You're too close."

The grenade exploded and the black curtain closed.

*****

"Oh my God!"

"Timmy, it doesn't help a wounded man's morale when the corpsman says ‘oh my god’."

"I'm sorry Sarge. I didn't know you were awake."

"Well, I am," John said through gritted teeth. "How bad is it?"

"It cut you open pretty good. From your armpit to your waist. Dammit! Delgado keep pressure there."

John shook his head to clear his vision. Delgado was kneeling beside him pushing hard against his ribs. Timmy was working frantically higher up toward his arm. He could still hear rifle fire echoing out in the darkness.

"Are we still holding?"

"Yeah, Jefe. The metal is pulling back."

"Sarge," Timmy looked anguished, "I have to close this up or you could bleed out. I've got to use combat clips and that's going to hurt like hell."

"Like it doesn't already?" John grimaced in pain. "Get to it."

"I'll give you some morphine for the pain."

"No," John snapped. "I can't go to la la land right now. I need to be able to think. Just do what you have to do, Timmy."

Timmy was wrong. It hurt like three hells. But at last he was done and the bandages covered the wound.

"Help me up," John said.

"Sarge, you have to stay still." Timmy was pleading. “If you pull those clamps out you will bleed to death."

"We will worry about that if it happens. Now help me up."

Shaking their heads with resignation, Timmy and Delgado gently lifted John to his feet. Looking about, John saw the bodies stretched out behind the aid station.

"How many?" His voice choked with emotion, with barely contained despair.

Timmy was equally distraught.

"Ten so far and at least two of the wounded probably won't make it."

John turned toward Delgado.

"Get me my rifle."

"Jefe, maybe you shouldn't--"

"GOD **** IT!!" John roared. “Do I have to give every order twice in this platoon?"

"No, Jefe."

"Then get me my rifle."

Corporal Delong heard the boots scraping on the ground before he saw Connor come limping out of the darkness. Anyone could tell he was in pain. His face was pale and he visibly grimaced with each step. Occasionally he grasped Delgado's shoulder to steady himself. His whole right side was swathed in bandages but still he continued on. ****, Delong thought, what is keeping this kid on his feet?

"How are you doing John?"

"I've been better, Jaime." John sank into a sitting position beside Delong. "How are we doing?"

"The metal pulled back out of sight about ten minutes ago. We got hurt pretty bad in the last go round."

"How bad?"

"Ten dead, five wounded and immobile. We got at least three additional wounded that are barely walking. I am your only corporal, Carl's dead."

John sighed audibly. "Okay, we can't hold the whole line with what we have left. We can't run with that many wounded. Pull everyone up here. We'll set up an enclave and try to mass fire when they come again."

"They'll get around us John."

"Maybe, but we will stop all we can."

Delong was about to get up when the high wail of descending artillery shells split the night. One by one, five shells exploded on the ground in front of the battered platoon. The crashing reverberations faded back into an ominous silence.

"What the hell was that?" Delong asked.

John chuckled through clenched teeth. "I think that was the artillery support the Legend promised us an hour ago." John and Corporal Delong looked blankly at each other for a moment before bursting into a near hysterical laughter.

By 2:30 A.M. the forlorn remnants of the platoon had formed up in a rough circle in the center of the line. Using his rifle butt as a crutch John hobbled from trooper to trooper letting himself be seen offering hope by his very presence. Delgado had swept up his friend Martin Klein who was sporting his own bandages to walk behind John ready to catch him if he fell. Even in the darkness Delgado could see that John's bandages were turning red as blood seeped from his wound.

******

The afternoon sun gleamed through the windows on the right side of the aircraft. Catherine could easily see the deep distress on Sarah's face, sense the profound effort she was exerting to hold back her tears.

"John couldn't know but he had already won his battle. Skynet's plan had been thrown into chaos. The force that was supposed to enter the tunnels was two hours behind schedule. The main Resistance forces had finally recognized the ambush in the North and were withdrawing. Skynet's plan to repeat the fall of San Pedro had failed."

"Did you know it at the time?" Sarah asked.

"I did. John Henry and I had remained in contact. But there was no way I could inform John. He would have to fight one last battle that night."

*****

For the third time a starter flare illuminated the battlefield. In the last moments of light before the flare died, the metal advance became visible. There was no particular order in the formation. The 700s and the Triple-8s were lumped together. And for the first time the cyborgs were in the line, their human-like skin gleaming in the last flickering residue of the flare.

Too many, John thought wearily. The platoon did not have enough fire power left to stop them. All you can do is your best.

"Shoot the skin-jobs first!" John commanded. “Either stop or damage them enough to wipe away the illusion of humanity. Make them infiltrators who would no longer be able to infiltrate.” Once again the cacophony of desperate battle filled the night.

At some point John realized to his amazement that the machines had stopped their advance. Rather than driving forward to come to grips, to overcome the humans, the terminators had halted and were exchanging rifle fire. Then, as if by divine intervention, the machines slowly began to back away. They continued to fire and lob mortar shells but only to screen their retreat.

"Cease fire!" John called out. He looked at his watch. 3:15 A.M. Not even three hours. So many had died. So much had changed and it had not even been three hours.

"Jefe?" Delgado's voice sounded deeply strained.

"What?"

"One of the last mortar shells hit the aid station. Timmy is dead."

"Oh my God," John whispered. He allowed himself a moment of despair, burying his face in his hands. Then, grabbing his rifle, he pushed himself to his feet. He still did not have time to mourn his losses. He was still in command.

******

"Why did they withdraw?" Sarah asked.

"We cannot be certain but John Henry believed that Skynet was monitoring the situation. When it understood that a greater victory was no longer possible it decided to preserve its assets for another day"

*****

4:37 A.M. Nothing for more than an hour, John thought. It didn't seem possible but it looked like the metal was done. They might live to see the dawn after all.

"Jefe," Delgado whispered. "Look what's coming."

Two men were laboriously working their way down the slope from the ridge. The first held a cloaked flashlight he used to illuminate the footholds for the second. The fight had to be over. It was the Legend.

As Lieutenant Larry Rankin approached, John was sitting on a large stone--a battered fragment of a pre-JDay building with his rifle resting on his lap. He made no attempt to rise or to salute. Nor did any other member of the platoon. Those that did not conspicuously look away stared at Rankin with unconcealed hatred.

With his faded light blue eyes and long boney nose that always seemed to be smelling something distasteful, Rankin took in the scene around him.

"Looks like things got a bit hot here last night, Connor."

"You might say that." John met Rankin's gaze daring him to challenge the absence of "Sir" in his response.

"You have been wounded." Rankin made it a statement without the slightest suggestion of sympathy.

"Nothing I can't handle," John replied with a sardonic smile.

"Well, you head on back to the tunnels and report to medical. I'll take over here and bring your platoon in with the rest of the section."

John jammed the butt of his rifle into the ground and struggled to his feet before anyone could help him. He stepped forward until his face was inches from Rankin.

In a voice as cold as a winter wind blowing over a fresh grave John snapped out each word. "You will not do that you piece of rancid dog ****. These are my men and I will take them back. What you will do is get your sorry ass out of my command perimeter. If you don't do that right now that man," John gestured toward Delgado, "will have a weapon malfunction. His rifle will accidently go off and put a bullet in your brain."

Rankin instinctively backed away from the raw fury in John's voice. He looked at Delgado who smiled broadly and nodded his head. Hearing a click to his left, the Legend turned to see another trooper conspicuously cocking his rifle.

"This isn't over, Connor." Rankin tried to impart an image of bravado but it was difficult to maintain while stumbling backward.

John watched with grim satisfaction as Rankin and aide began to retrace their steps toward the ridge. Then he saw the second group--this time three men--moving down the slope. Even from a distance John recognized the man in the lead. Captain Kyle Reese, the company commander, had arrived.

With his company literally split in two by the need to be on both sides of the ravine, Kyle had made the decision to stay with the northern section. As he looked at the scene unfolding before him, he realized that he had made the wrong choice.

"Jesus, Mary, mother of God!" Reese's com operator stared with horrified disbelief at the sight of the residue of battle. In the gray light of a coming dawn the shattered terminators littered the ground around the survivors of Connor's platoon. In some places there were literally pools of human blood still standing like puddles after a thunderstorm. In the lull after the last attack, the dead had been collected in a long line and covered. The boots sticking out from under the blankets accused those who had let them die without support.

As Kyle reached him, John struggled up into a stance of attention and saluted. Seeing the dark stain spreading on John's right side, Kyle quickly returned the salute.

"Sergeant Connor, report."

The tone in John's voice flattened. "The metal wanted to come through here. They tried. They didn't."

There was so much that Kyle wanted to say. He wanted to explain, even to ask forgiveness, but nothing would emerge from his heart. For now he had to cling to his stature as Captain. If he spoke in the way he wanted, he would break apart.

"Very well, Sergeant Connor. We are pulling back to the tunnels. As soon as you are ready, you may move out."

"I have a request, Sir." Kyle could hear the physical pain in John's voice.

"What do you need?"

"I need stretcher bearers, Sir."

Kyle looked about, momentarily uncertain.

"We can deal with that. How many of your wounded can't walk?"

"No Sir," John said, "I want stretcher bearers for them."

He pointed to the long row of covered bodies. "We came out together. We are going back together."

John seemed to gasp for breath. Then he straightened and fixed an implacable stare on his Captain. "Even if we have to carry them in our arms, we are all going home."

Kyle stepped close so only John could hear his whisper. "Take it easy, Johnny. I'll get your stretcher bearers."

Captain Reese turned and walked purposefully toward Lieutenant Rankin who visibly blanched as Reese approached. When the two officers spoke they were too far away for their voices to carry but the body language was unmistakeable. Kyle was thrusting his finger at Rankin's chest for emphasis and then pointing at John's fallen troopers. If possible Rankin seemed to become paler as the exchange continued.

Delgado exhaled an acidic chuckle that was all malice and no humor. "Looks like the Legend is having a real bad day."

John sat back down on the stone. "Not nearly as bad as the bastard deserves."

******

Even though the underground community was already numb with grief over the losses reported from Operation Redemption, it was said that battle-scarred veterans wept when John Connor’s Lost Platoon entered the tunnels.

The stretcher bearers brought in the dead first. Although each of the fallen had been covered with a blanket or a soldier’s poncho, occasionally a lifeless hand slipped loose and dangled down as if waving a last farewell.

The three troopers too badly wounded to march were next, mercifully granted sleep by the morphine that masked their pain. Only one of the three would ever rise to walk again. The measured cadence of boots on cement announced the last part of the mournful procession. Sergeant John Connor was bringing in all that remained of his platoon: nine troopers, one corporal, one sergeant. Not a one of them was without a visible wound. There was no sign of relief on any of their faces, only a haunted and desolate look of boundless fatigue, a weariness that mere physical rest would never ease. Captain Kyle Reese, who had led the rest of the company in only minutes before, shook his head when one of the troopers tried to come to attention. "No," he ordered, "stand easy." It took conscious effort to keep his voice from cracking.

Some of the troopers took the order to its broadest interpretation, sliding down to sit in the floor. Others leaned forward using their rifles as support to hold themselves erect. All heads jerked up, however, when John Connor passed. Those on the floor struggled back to their feet.

Connor's uniform was in tatters. The stain on his side glistened wet from his arm to his boot. The grime and dust caked on his face could not hide the ghostly pallor of his complexion. Delgado and Klein walked on each side of him as he approached Captain Reese. Those who looked closely noticed that both men had grasped the back of John's belt and were using that hold to keep him erect.

"You may dismiss your men, Sergeant Connor." "Yes Sir. Thank you." John's voice had a dry rasp as if no moisture was left in his body. Shaking off his support, John turned to face the battered remnant of his command. Reaching inside for one last repository of strength, the tenor of his voice deepened.

"Platoon...well done...dismissed."

Kyle found himself losing the ability to hold the facade of stoic command. Stepping behind John he whispered pleadingly.

"You brought them home, Johnny. You brought them all home. Now please go to medical."

John nodded and took two steps before his knees buckled and his conscious will slipped away. He would have fallen except that Klein and Delgado wrapped their arms around him lifting him up into a basket carry. Two spectators started to step forward as if to help, but members of the platoon immediately cut them off.

"You stay away from him!" one of the troopers growled. "We will take care of him."

Sergeant John Connor was carried gently down the tunnels to the medical facility in the company of his personal honor guard.

******

“It was two days after the failure of Operation Redemption that Kyle Reese stormed into Derek's office." Catherine looked amused as she related this part of the story.

“Derek was not surprised by either his brother's appearance or the depth of his anger."

******

"I want him out of my company, Derek!"

"Let me guess---Larry Rankin."

"**** right!" Kyle snarled. "I want that useless piece of **** out. Promote him, shoot him, transfer him, I don't care. I want him out!!"

"I'm ahead of you little brother. He is being detached to serve as his father's aide in the intelligence unit."

"Perfect," Kyle said sarcastically. "Talk about putting all the rotten apples in one barrel."

"That's going to leave you a lieutenant short, Kyle. Any recommendations on his replacement?"

"Yeah, promote Johnny."

"Johnny?" Derek seemed surprised. “Kyle, he isn't even nineteen yet."

"I don't care if he is nine or ninety. You've read the after action reports. His platoon may have saved this whole command. He can handle the job."

Suddenly Derek smiled broadly. "Actually, I was expecting this." He opened his desk drawer and pulled out a small box he tossed to his brother.

"Lieutenant's bars. I got them yesterday. Let's go to the medical unit and see young Napoleon. You can pin them on him yourself."

"You are a sneaky son of a *****, big brother."

"Watch the insubordination, Captain," Derek said, laughing. "How is he doing? I heard he got a nasty wound."

"I think he’ll be okay," Kyle responded. "I think the medics are afraid not to give him the best care."

"Afraid?"

"Yeah, when we get to medical you'll see two troopers in full combat gear sitting outside. They are from Johnny's platoon. If you chase them away two more show up. If you send them away the first two come back."

"Honor guards," Derek stated.

******

The airplane was descending towards Los Angeles. Glancing out the cabin window, Catherine could see the extraordinary expanse of human civilization spreading out below her. How much of this would be here in two years? How many of the humans so frantically chasing their petty ambitions, oblivious to the looming threat hanging over them would still be alive then? Could John Connor save them, any of them, from the horror Skynet sought to unleash? Almost in spite of herself Catherine found herself hoping. Hope, she knew, was an irrational response but still she hoped. More importantly, she believed. She believed that with John Henry's help, John Connor could be the leader humanity needed.

She turned to look at Sarah who was obviously reflecting deeply on the story Catherine had just related. I did not lie to her, Catherine thought. Every detail was true. But she had withheld something. She had not shared an experience that would always remain a private matter between her and Captain Connor.

*****

With the upsurge in casualties following the abortive Operation Redemption, the medical facilities in the tunnels were strained to the breaking point. To cope with the burden, medical personnel were brought in from other areas controlled by the Resistance. So many new faces, so many unknown people that no one noticed the new red-haired nurse that approached the bed occupied by John Connor. As she passed the two doctors, she easily overheard their conversation.

"How is young Connor doing?"

"Not well, and I am not sure why. He lost a lot of blood, but we have addressed that with whole blood and plasma transfusions. He is just not improving. If anything, he seems to be fading."

"Do you think there might be internal organ damage?"

"I don't know. I just don't know. But if he doesn't start to show improvement soon, we may have to go in and look."

The nurse sat down in the chair beside Connor's bed. His eyes were closed, his breathing was even. But there was an expression of unrestrained sadness on his face. It was as if some unconscious part of him was saying goodbye, as if he was about to leave all he cared about.

"Sergeant Connor." The nurse's Scottish accent was instantly apparent. Her voice became more insistent. "Sergeant Connor, wake up."

An involuntary flutter, and then John's eyes opened. "Hello Catherine," he said softly, "it is nice to see you."

"It is pleasant to see you as well. How are you feeling?"

"I'm all right. I'm just very tired."

Catherine leaned forward so that others in the ward would not hear her. "You did well, Sergeant. You did better than anyone could have expected or even imagined."

"Thank you, but we couldn't have done it without you and John Henry."

"Nor could we have accomplished anything without you. John Henry told Cameron what you had done and she gave me a message for you."

For a brief moment, a look of new animation filled John's expression. "What did she say?"

“She said to tell you that she is proud of you and...” Catherine paused, “to tell you that she loves you.”

John's response was not what Catherine expected. "Please tell her that I loved her too. Tell her I'm sorry that I never told her myself. Tell her I'm sorry."

John's eyes closed and he seemed to sink deeper into his pillow. The look on his face became one of surrender.

John's use of the past tense was unmistakeable. Catherine looked down at him with stunned dismay and then she reached over and seized his shoulders.

"No!" she said, shaking him hard. "NO!! You are not allowed to do this."

John's eyes opened again. "Do what? I'm just tired. I want to rest."

"No, you do not want to rest." Catherine sought to keep her voice low but fiercely demanding. "You want to give up. You want to die. But you are not permitted to do that. You are JOHN CONNOR. Your mother dedicated her life to you. Cameron was willing to end her existence for you. The men of your platoon fought and died for you."

A look of combative anger filled John’s face. "I don't want anybody else to die for me."

"Well, that is just too bad isn't it?" Catherine snapped. "You are a leader, John Connor. Like it or not that is your burden. You do not get to toss it aside just because you are tired."

The light, the blazing fire in Connor’s eyes sprang back into view. "You know Catherine, my mother was right."

"In what way?"

John grinned. "You are a *****."

Catherine actually laughed aloud. The crisis had passed. "Only when I have to be."

"Help me sit up," John said, his voice resonating with a new vitality.

Catherine pulled him into a sitting position and placed a pillow behind his back.

"You had better leave now. Tell Cameron I will come and visit as soon as I can get out of here, and Catherine..."

"Yes?"

"Thank you and please thank John Henry for me.”

"You are more than welcome, Sergeant Connor."

John waited until Catherine had left the room before calling out in a loud voice, "Hey, does a man have to starve to death in this place before someone brings him something to eat?"

******

The airplane rolled to a stop by the private hangar. As they unbuckled their seat belts and rose to their feet, Catherine looked at Sarah. "I once warned John Henry that humans would disappoint him. There is an exception. Your son will never disappoint him. John Connor may not always win, but he will never disappoint."




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