Excerpt: Zahn’s Terminator Salvation: Trial By Fire

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For the second time in ten minutes, Blair found herself jolted out of private thoughts. “Well what?” she asked.

“You going to take us down?” Barnes demanded. “Or you just going to circle around up here looking at the pretty scenery?”

Blair felt her cheeks warm. She had indeed been flying with her brain on autopilot, running them in a lazy circle around the western periphery of the remains.

“I was trying to find a spot that wasn’t actually still on fire,” she countered, hoping the excuse didn’t sound as pathetic to him as it did to her. The big pit in the ground where the team had rappelled down to the lab… okay, there it was. Connor had told them Barnes’s brother Caleb
had been on the western side when Skynet blew the lab.

She frowned as something caught her eye. It was a small, slender hump in the ground, like a tree root that had been forced aboveground by some obstruction beneath it.

Only there weren’t any trees nearby. Not for miles around.

“There,” Barnes said sharply, pointing toward the edge of the pit. “I see some bodies. Take us down.”

“Okay,” Blair said, feeling a shiver run through her. This was not going to be pleasant.

It wasn’t. The bodies were in bad shape, burned and mangled by the massive explosion that had taken out the lab. What was left had had two weeks’ to begin decaying, though the dry desert air had alleviated the effects somewhat. The human remains were scattered amid tangled debris from the antenna array and the metal skulls, torsos, and limbs of the Terminators that had been defending it.

There were a lot of those pieces, too, along with plenty of T-600 miniguns and the big G11 caseless-round submachineguns that Skynet was arming its T-700s with these days. A lot of the weapons were useless, though a few of the miniguns looked in decent shape and some
even had ammo belts still attached. Clearly, Skynet had thrown a huge number of resources into this battle, and Blair found herself wondering how much of a role that desperate-looking defense had played in persuading Command that they were genuinely onto something.

Slowly, methodically, Blair and Barnes continued their grisly task. Each face had to be looked at closely, with the body often first having to be turned over. Here and there Blair spotted someone she recognized, either one of the people from Connor’s original team or someone she’d gotten to know in the months since they’d been pulled out of Los Angeles and put under General Olsen’s overall command. Each time, she felt a tug at her heart, and a small diminishing of herself. Some poet, she remembered vaguely, had once written about such things.

Caleb wasn’t in the first group she and Barnes checked out. Nor was he in the second, or the third, or the fourth. Midway through the fifth Blair’s aching heart and churning stomach finally got the better of her, and she had to move away for a few minutes to settle both of them.

Barnes, predictably, didn’t seem to notice her distress. He certainly didn’t say anything as Blair stood a dozen paces away, breathing shallowly through her mouth. He continued on, as emotionless and machinelike as any Terminator, checking each broken body before moving on to the next.

He was so silent and straightforwardly determined in his quest, in fact, that he had unhooked his entrenching tool from his pack and started digging before Blair even realized that he’d found his brother.

Gingerly, feeling like she was setting off across a minefield, she walked over to him.

“May I help?” she asked.

“No,” he said flatly, not looking at her.

For a minute Blair watched him jabbing the tool into the loose sand and throwing it to the side, wondering if she should just take him at his word and go wait in the Blackhawk. Then, moving a few feet away from him, she started to dig.

She half expected him to order her away. But he didn’t. Maybe he realized that she’d been Caleb’s friend, too, and deserved the chance to help him to his final rest.

Maybe he just didn’t consider her worth the trouble of yelling at.

The sun was dipping close to the western mountains by the time they finished the grave. Again, Blair expected Barnes to order her away as he picked up his brother’s body and laid it gently in the hole. But again, he simply ignored her as she stood quietly by. He spoke over the grave for a few minutes, his voice too low for Blair to catch more than a few words of the farewell. Then, straightening up, he threw his brother a final salute. Blair did the same, holding the salute for probably half a minute until Barnes finally lowered his arm to his side
and again picked up his entrenching tool.

Ten minutes later, it was done. While Blair waited by the grave, Barnes constructed a cross out of his brother’s rifle and a slightly warped Terminator leg strut. He dug the cross into the sand, and for another minute stood gazing at the grave and the marker. He took a deep breath, and for the first time in probably an hour he looked at Blair.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s go.”

“All right,” Blair said, her mind flicking to the hundreds of bodies still lying out beneath the open sky. But there was no way she and Barnes could deal with so many. All she could do was put them out of her mind as best she could. “Before we go, I’d like to check out something I
spotted on our way in.”

He eyed her suspiciously. “What was it?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “Don’t worry, it won’t take long.” He glowered, but gave a reluctant nod. “Where?”

Blair turned around, mentally superimposing the image from the sky on top of the landscape stretched out in front of her.

“About a hundred meters that way,” she said, pointing northwest. “You want me to go and get the helo?”

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