Excerpt: Zahn’s Terminator Salvation: Trial By Fire

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Timothy Zahn’s Terminator Salvation: Trial By Fire hit both brick and mortar and virtual bookshelves this week. The latest installment in the Terminator universe picks up where the movie left off. Connor is on the mends and the Resistance is trying to figure out what exactly Marcus Wright is and how they can defend themselves against the undetectable hybrids.

Zahn’s impeccable pacing makes for a quick read of Trial By Fire and anyone interested should pick it up. It’s only $8 from Titan Books.

The fourth Terminator movie, Terminator Salvation, starring Christian Bale and directed by McG was a summer box office hit, grossing over $400 million worldwide. In this brand new spin-off novel which follows on from events in the movie, a recovering John Connor grants Barnes permission to return to the destroyed VLA lab and bury his brother who was killed in the explosive opening of the movie. At the ruins Barnes and pilot Blair Williams search through the debris for the remains of their comrade. During their hunt they uncover a half-buried cable, that was clearly a data transmission line, leading up into the mountains. The two Resistance fighters head northwest to investigate. Amid the forests on the slopes of the mountains, the pair uncover an entire village that appears to have been largely untouched by Judgment Day and its aftermath. Suspicious of the villagers, Barnes and Blair decide to dig deeper….

We’ll be interviewing Zahn next week, so if you have any questions leave them in comments. Oh, and here’s a one chapter excerpt from the book. Enjoy!


They’d been flying for nearly three hours, and Blair Williams had watched the landscape sliding beneath the Blackhawk helicopter gradually change from forest to sparse grassland and finally to desert. Above her, the sky was mottled with a mixture of feathery white cirrus clouds and long dirty gray stratus ones, interspersed with occasional patches of blue sky. All around her the air was filled with the hum of the Blackhawk’s engines and the rhythmic throbbing of its rotors.

Beside her, scowling in the copilot’s seat, was Barnes.

Blair sighed to herself. She hadn’t wanted to take on this mission, and it had been abundantly clear that Barnes hadn’t wanted her along, either. But Connor had insisted,
and John Connor wasn’t the sort of person you said no to.

Especially when the only reason Connor’s dark eyes were even alive to gaze at, into, and through you was because Marcus Wright had given his life to save him.

Marcus Wright. The man who in a few short days Blair had learned to love.

Not the man, a bitter-edged corner of her mind corrected mockingly in Barnes’s voice. The machine you learned to love.

Blair shook her head sharply. Stop that! she ordered herself. Yes, Marcus had been mostly machine by the time Blair met him, a hybrid of man and Terminator that was far beyond even Skynet’s usual blasphemies. And yes, he’d been created for the express purpose of luring Connor into Skynet Central to die.

But buried somewhere beneath all that machinery had been a man. A man with a living heart, a determined mind, and an unquenchable spirit.

There was no way to know if he’d still had a soul. Blair hoped that he had.

“There!” Barnes’s voice growled into her headphones.

Blair blinked away the bittersweet reverie. Ahead on the horizon she could see the still smoldering remains of the massive Skynet dish array and hidden underground lab that the Resistance had hit over two weeks ago.

And in doing so had walked squarely into a devastating, multilayered trap.

Blair still winced whenever she thought about how close they’d come that day to losing everything. The self-destruct explosion that had taken out the lab and killed the entire assault team—except Connor—had been the first, most obvious trap. The data download that the techs had managed to transmit before they died had been the far more subtle, far more dangerous one. Buried inside that data had been a radio kill code that had promised a way for the Resistance to simultaneously shut down Skynet’s vast armies of Terminators, T-1 tanks, and H-K Hunter-Killers.

But the promise had been a lie. The code had worked perfectly in Connor’s small-scale tests, perfectly enough that Command had given the order for a massive, simultaneous transmission to be followed by a scorched- earth attack on Skynet’s huge San Francisco hub.

But when the multiple signals were sent out, the supposed kill code morphed into a homing signal, allowing Skynet to pinpoint and destroy most of the Resistance cells worldwide.

Of all the leaders only Connor had smelled a rat in time, and had shut down his team’s transmitter before it could join the party. Only Connor’s group and the ones who had heeded his plea for more time were still alive and functioning.

And only Connor’s group was back there in the remains of San Francisco, cleaning up the remnants of Skynet’s once massive forces.

So far, the clean-up had been relatively easy. A duck shoot, even, at least the mopping-up part that Barnes had been engaged in. Nearly all the surviving T-600s and T-700s were hopelessly crippled, and their demolition was giving some good firearms practice to the new recruits who’d joined up from among the civilians Connor’s pilots had rescued before the balloon went up.

But the duck shoot wasn’t going to last much longer. Blair had heard rumors that there was some kind of prophecy wrapped around Connor, that he was destined to lead the Resistance to victory over the Terminators. She didn’t put a lot of stock in such things, and she couldn’t imagine Connor himself taking it very seriously either.

But considering the time and resources Skynet had poured into luring the man into his own private corner of the trap, it was clear that the big computer wasn’t ready to dismiss Connor or this so-called prophecy nearly so quickly.

And that meant Skynet wouldn’t simply write off western North America as a loss and content itself with trying to dominate and wipe out the rest of the world’s population. It would be moving resources here, as many as it could, as quickly as it could.

They’d won a major battle. But the war was far from over.


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?”

With a snort, he strode past her and headed off in the direction she’d indicated.

Blair grimaced. Easy for him to say. He hadn’t gotten shot during her attempt to free Marcus from the prison Connor had put him in.

Fortunately, the wound hadn’t been as serious as she’d first thought. It had probably been a ricochet, and though it had hurt like hell at the time and half paralyzed her leg, it had done a good job of healing in the week and a half since then.

It still wasn’t completely well, though, and too much exertion was bad for it. Barnes probably knew that.

And he obviously didn’t care.

With a sigh, Blair hurried to catch up to him.

The mysterious hump Blair had seen had been reasonably visible from the air. From the ground, with the western sun exaggerating every shadow, it was even more obvious.

It wasn’t a root that had been forced up out of the ground. Instead, it was a root-sized cable.

“Coaxial type,” she commented, pointing to the central core and surrounding shielding where Barnes had sliced through it with his trench knife. “Outer shielding
pretty sturdy.”

“Okay,” Barnes said, restlessly turning his knife over and over in his hand. “So?”

“So it was obviously designed to be at least semi- permanent,” Blair said, trying to think it through. “And yet it was buried barely thirty centimeters under the sand.”

“Okay,” Barnes said again. “So?”

“So I’m guessing it was an add-on,” Blair concluded, squinting northwest across the glare of the sunlight reflecting off the sand. “Something Skynet laid down after the main lab was set up.” She gestured down. “And the fact that this is a data cable and not a power cable
tells us it was sending information.”

“Maybe it was going over the mountains to San Francisco,” Barnes said. “Can we get out of here now?”

“That’s an awfully long way to string a cable,” Blair pointed out, the annoyance she’d been sitting on ever since leaving Connor’s camp starting to bubble up into anger. Was Barnes really too stupid to see what that could mean? Or was he playing dumb just to irritate her? “Especially when they had a dish array right here that could probably punch a signal anywhere on the planet.”

“Fine,” Barnes growled. “You’re the smart one. What do you think it was?”

“Well, let’s see,” she said, for once making no effort to suppress her sarcasm. “You think maybe Skynet might have set up an outlying satellite base out in the mountains? A backup facility in case—oh, I don’t know—we managed to take out this one?”

“If there’s something out there, what’s it been doing since then?” Barnes shot back. “Didn’t make a peep while we were blowing up San Francisco.” He pointed toward the mountains. “Or maybe there’s a whole bunch of H-Ks heading toward us from the place right now. You see a bunch of H-Ks heading toward us?”

Blair ground her teeth. “Of course not,” she said. “But I still think it’s worth checking out.”

“So write it up,” Barnes growled. “Connor loves getting stuff like that.”

“Or we could just check it out ourselves,” Blair said. “See if there really is something out there before we bother him with it.”

For another moment Barnes glowered at her. Then, reluctantly, he shifted his glower toward the mountains. Whatever the man thought about Blair, he was hound- dog loyal to Connor, and even in his current grouchy state of mind he couldn’t help but see the logic of not
burdening his commander with extra stuff during the man’s recovery. Especially if, as he obviously thought, there turned out to be nothing out there at all. “Fine,” he agreed at last. “A quick check, and then we go.”

“Thanks.” Blair braced herself. “But we’ll have to wait until tomorrow.”

Barnes twisted his head back around to look at her.


“We need to be able to see the loops where the explosion forced the cable to the surface,” Blair explained hurriedly. “I know there are more of them—I saw at least three on our way in. But we’ll need the shadows from an early-morning sun to see them. At night, we’ll lose the trail completely.”

Barnes snorted. “This is ridiculous. It probably just connects to one of the perimeter sensors.”

“Maybe,” Blair conceded. “But we won’t know unless we check it out.” She waved a hand. “Look, it isn’t that big a deal. We take off as soon as the sun is up, follow the cable, turn the Blackhawk’s machineguns loose on whatever’s at the other end, and go home.” She cocked her head slightly. “Caleb would have wanted to make sure.”

The instant the words were out of her mouth she knew she’d crossed the line. But it was too late. Barnes’s expression went rigid, and for that first frozen second Blair felt she was staring death squarely in the face.

“Don’t do that,” he said, the utter lack of emotion in his voice more terrifying than any scream or curse he could have snarled at her. “Don’t ever use my brother’s name that way again. Ever.”

“You’re right,” Blair said, her mouth suddenly dry. “I’m sorry.”

For another moment she faced into the bitter iciness of Barnes’s gaze. Then, he exhaled quietly, and the moment had passed.

“I’ll be sleeping on the right-hand side of the chopper,” he said gruffly. “Shoot anything that comes near that isn’t me.” Turning, he stalked back toward the distant Blackhawk.

“Right,” Blair called a bit timidly after him. “I’ll take the first watch, then?”

Barnes didn’t bother to reply.

Blair gave the new grave a final look. Then she set off after him.

She had the first watch, all right. And given that it would be her job to wake him up for his turn, chances were very good that she was going to have the only watch.

She sighed. It was shaping up to be a long, lonely, chilly night.

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