They’re in a diner just out of Pasadena when Sarah leans over her cup of coffee and says, very quietly, “We’re being followed.”
“What? By who?” Dani asks, ducking down behind the laminated menu and scanning the restaurant.
It’s a dive really, with sticky seats and some of the worst service she’s ever had, but part of her is still disappointed. She had ordered pancakes and while they aren’t very good, the two of them have been eating takeout and canned food for three days at this point. Dani desperately wants to use a knife and fork for once, or at least eat at a tabletop instead of in the driver’s seat or on another motel mattress.
“Put that down, Jesus, what did I say about looking suspicious?” Sarah grouses, swatting at Dani’s menu shield. “Not here. On the road. That white sedan that’s been up our ass all the way from L.A.”
“Why didn’t you say so in the car?” Dani hisses, eyes still darting from the door to the parking lot outside. “Why did you let us stop here?”
“I wanted to be sure. Sometimes I get a little over-cautious.”
Paranoid, Dani thinks but doesn’t say. Sarah’s earned the right to a little paranoia. They both have.
“Who is it?” Dani asks quietly. “The police? Border Control? Or….”
“It’s not a robot.” Sarah says bluntly. “This car’s been taking breaks. They wouldn’t need that.”
“So, what do we do? Run again?”
“Always.” Sarah says and when she looks out the window, Dani can see the exhaustion under her sunglasses. “Finish your food first. We have a head start I think.”
Dani takes a bite, but the pancakes are cold by now. She eats them anyway- the luxury of being picky is long gone by now. And of course, who knew how much longer pancakes would be around for?
Tick, Tock, Dani thinks to herself, and the thought is now almost routine, the countdown to Apocalypse has already started.
She feels slightly better, as she always does, when they’re back on the road, with Sarah pressing down on the accelerator beside her.
At the start of this endless road trip neither of them had talked, and the silence had stretched on between them for miles of monotonous American landscape.
Hungry? Sarah had asked or We’ll stop here for tonight.
Dani had just shaken her head or nodded and watched the countryside go past, letting her eyes turn everything into a formless blur. Sometimes she had slept and dreamt of her brother bleeding into the steering wheel or her father or the thing that looked as though it was her father but was not.
Sometimes she dreamed of Grace and mostly these dreams were of blood and dirt and fire.
Sometimes they weren’t and that was somehow worse. Once, driving late at night, Dani had dreamt of walking down the street to her home with Grace at her side and stopping to buy them both food from a cart. It had been nice; nostalgic like a memory and sweet tasting, the image of Grace’s shy smile.
Then Dani had woken up and remembered that none of it was real; that Grace was dead, that her home was gone, and they had never walked down that street together at all. They had never known each other when they weren’t running for their lives.
Now though, she and Sarah talk, just a little and only because Dani thought she would go crazy from the silence.
At first it was like drawing teeth, and the topics that had to be avoided were endless (Sarah’s past, Dani’s future, the end of the world; just to name a few offhand). Then one day they had passed a truck with a dog lolling his head out of the window and Dani had felt her heart lift a little, just looking at it.
Sometimes I wonder if my dog lived. Dani had said. I think he did. He was always a survivor.
There had been a pause and then Sarah, without looking away from the road had said, I had a dog once. Not a small one like that- a German Shepherd. That was a good fucking dog.
After that, something changed and then they would have these moments more often. You couldn’t really call it conversation; it was more like an exchange of information.
I was a normal kid. I had a normal job that I hated, Sarah would say and then a day later, I had a roommate called Ginger and she always played her music too loud.
Me and my brother used to sneak into R-Rated action movies, Dani told her. I always wanted to be an engineer, but we didn’t have the money.
Once Sarah had told her that she used to have a shag haircut back in the 80s and Dani had been so mystified that she had actually broken their ‘no computers’ rule to look it up in an internet café in some tiny town along the California border. The Google image search hadn’t been very helpful and for the next day she had kept watching Sarah out of the corner of her eye, trying to picture her without the grey in her hair and lines on her face.
The more Dani learned about Sarah’s past the more clearly her own future came into view; a life of running, of counting exits and bullets and minutes, ticking down on a clock. Everyday of the last few months, Dani wakes up and knows that a little more of who she used to be has slipped away overnight. Soon Dani knows she will wake up once morning and be the revolutionary hero that Grace had died for, the fearless leader of men and women; the last hope of humanity.
But Dani isn’t quite there yet; she’s somewhere in between that and the girl who used to work double shifts at the factory and fall asleep into her food in front of terrible American cartoons.
Dani doesn’t really know who she is anymore. She’s survived. She’s surviving. Right now, that’s all she has to think about.
The white sedan follows them for three days, during which time neither of them really sleep. They eat without stopping, loading up on candy bars and pre-packaged sandwiches from greasy gas stations. Twice, they almost lose it on country roads, but it always finds them again. The third time it reappears in their rear-view mirror, Sarah’s composure cracks and she swears, low and heartfelt before performing an incredibly illegal manoeuvre and taking them off the highway.
“Follow this, asshole.” Sarah mutters and guns the engine.
The car jerks forward and then they’re going 30 over the speed limit down some dirt road and Dani has to grab onto the dashboard and think very hard about not throwing up.
The jaw grinding terror seems to be worth it though, because for the first time in days, there’s nothing but empty road behind them for hours and when Dani looks over to see Sarah’s hands trembling on the gear stick, she decides enough is enough.
“We’re stopping somewhere for the night.”
“Tomorrow.” Sarah snaps but her eyelids are drooping, and the sun is already beginning to set outside.
“Tonight.” Dani says firmly and hell, maybe she does have a little of that fearless leader attitude, because for once Sarah actually listens to her.
They’re in the middle of nowhere or possibly Nevada (Dani has lost track of state lines at this point) but they still manage to find a motel. It’s charged by the hour and the neon sign is broken but Dani could almost cry when they pull into the parking lot, she’s so desperate to sleep in a real bed. The man at the desk looks them over a little too long but hands over the keys readily enough at the sight of cash.
Upstairs Sarah goes through her usual inspection routine but she’s sleepwalking and when Dani makes her lie down, she’s unconscious almost instantly. If she weren’t snoring, Dani would worry she was dead.
Dani wants nothing more than to pass out next to her, but she knows enough now to realise that someone has to keep watch. She sits by the window for a long time, twitching back the curtain to look down at the empty car park but she keeps drifting off into strange dreams of red eyes and drowning. Finally, she gets up and slips out of the room into the humid night air, closing it gently behind her.
It must be around 1 in the morning but there’s noise behind most of the doors she passes on her way downstairs to the single vending machine. Television sets; people laughing or talking or making love. Dani feels very alone like this; like a ghost.
The vending machine is rusted and Dani looks at it dubiously but it eats her crumpled dollar happily enough, spitting out a nearly cold can of Cola in return.
When Dani opens it, it tastes strangely flat and sickly sweet, but she’s so tired all she can do is lean back against the machine, feeling the metal pressing through her thin shirt. The neon flickers and hums above her and then there’s the noise of a car engine, rumbling in the night.
Dani stiffens, and straightens up, but it’s too late and she’s -stupid, stupid- left her gun upstairs.
The car pulls into view and it’s the white sedan, crawling to a halt, the purr of its engine ringing in Dani’s ears.
Sarah is too far away to hear her scream.
Dani can’t move, back pressed flat back against the vending machine and all she can think is that Grace died for nothing, they’re all going to die for nothing if Dani is killed here, so very far away from home and alone.
A figure steps out of the car, a tall shadow in the dark, faceless under a sweatshirt hood. The can in Dani’s hands crumples a little from how hard she’s holding it.
“Who are you?” Dani calls out, proud that her voice isn’t shaking too badly. “Why are you following us?”
The figure steps forward, into a pool of purple neon light and pulls down the hood and Dani feels all the air rush from her lungs at once, her heart slamming painfully in her chest.
“Dani?” Grace says, as if she isn’t sure, as if Dani’s the one who should be dead, who is dead.
“Grace.” Dani says. “Grace.”
It’s all she can say, and it sounds almost holy on her tongue and then she’s rushing forward, the dropped can spilling sticky cola onto the ground. Two steps, three and then she has her arms wrapped around Grace’s neck, up on her tiptoes and Dani is holding her too tight but she can’t help it because Grace is alive, she’s alive and real and warm.
“I’m sorry.” Grace says into her hair, over and over. “I’m sorry. I took so long to get here. To find you.”
“Grace.” Is all Dani can say, she’s almost sobbing it now.
She can feel Grace hesitate, holding herself very rigid even and then something seems to break, and her arms are around Dani, pulling her closer.
“I’m sorry.” Grace says, and the two of them are like broken records, skipping on the line.
“You’re sorry?” Dani asks incredulously. “You were dead, Grace, I saw you die.”
“I did.” Grace says, and her hand is on Dani’s face wiping away the tears that Dani hadn’t even know were there. “I mean, I think I was close to it. It was like going to sleep. You were there and the factory was burning…”
“I shouldn’t have left you there.” Dani says hotly and then, without planning or reason, she’s leaning up on her tiptoes, her hands on Grace’s face as she kisses her.
It’s nothing more than a barely-there brush of dry lips, almost friendly, except for the way it makes heat curl in Dani’s belly.
She regrets it almost instantly from the way Grace rocks back, blue eyes wide and shocked as if Dani’s slapped her.
“Oh god, I’m sorry-” Dani starts to say, the full implications of what she’s just done rushing in and then there’s the sound of a gun cocking back.
“Step away from her.” Sarah’s voice says, low and dangerous and Dani and Grace look over at the same time to see the gun barrel levelled at them.
Sarah’s hair is messy on one side from sleeping on it and she’s only wearing socks, but she looks terrifying, her hands sure and steady around the gun.
“Sarah.” Dani says, moving in between the gun and Grace, her hands up. “Sarah, what are you doing?”
“You aren’t stupid Dani.” Sarah snaps. “Have you learnt anything yet? They can take on whatever form they want. Grace is dead.”
“No.” Dani snaps. “It’s her Sarah. Put the gun down.”
“No, it’s okay.” Grace says behind her quickly, but Dani just bares her teeth.
“No, it’s not.” She says. “Put the gun down Sarah. This is Grace and you’re going to stop pointing a fucking gun at her. Now.”
Sarah looks at the two of them for a long moment, eyes narrowed.
“You have a hell of a lot of explaining to do.” She says at last and when she finally lowers the gun, Dani almost sobs out loud from the relief.
“I woke up in the morgue.” Is the first thing Grace says when she’s sitting on the motel bed next to Dani.
Across the room Sarah is leaning against the ugly wallpaper. She’s still holding the gun but at least she’s not actively threatening to shoot anyone, which Dani supposes is the best they can hope for.
“On the uh, the table?” Dani asks, scrunching up her nose a little horrified. She’s not completely sure about the word morgue but it conjures up images of dissections and autopsies carried out by grim-faced detectives in crime shows.
“No.” Grace says. “In the locker. They must have thought I was dead too. Maybe I was.”
“You should be.” Sarah says and when Dani glares at her, looks almost apologetic. “Look, I don’t mean it’s not good to have you back in the land of the living, but that power source kept you alive didn’t it?”
“It kept the parts of me that were mechanical running.” Grace says quietly and she looks very tired, slumped in on herself with her hands twisting in the covers. “I think that a lot of those parts are malfunctioning without it. But maybe I was just human enough to keep going without them.”
“Of course you’re human enough.” Dani says, almost angry and not sure why. “You’ve always been human.”
Grace looks up at her and smiles, a little shyly.
“So, you rose from the dead, stole a car and chased us over three state lines.” Sarah says, sounding a little impressed. “How exactly did you do that last one anyway?”
Grace sighs, looking like it’s a struggle to keep her thoughts in order.
“My augmentations are malfunctioning, but I still managed to tap into some military frequencies. A lot of people are looking for you two. I was worried I wouldn’t be the first one to find you.”
“How far away?” Sarah asks, eyes narrowed.
“A day.” Grace says quietly. “Maybe two if we’re lucky.”
“Right.” Sarah says, nodding to herself. “Well let’s get a move on then.”
Dani looks between them and starts shaking her head.
“Wait. You’re exhausted, Grace is only barely alive,” she protests. “We can spare a few hours to sleep at least.”
“Dani, when are you going to get it?” Sarah asks roughly. “We don’t have a few hours. If Grace found us then we aren’t safe. Other people are coming and they’re not the type of people you can give a nice big kiss hello.”
“Hey-“Grace says, turning bright red beside her but Dani has been putting up with Sarah for weeks now and she knows how to handle her a little better at this point.
So instead of shouting at her or feeling mortified, she takes a deep breath and sets her jaw.
“Fine. Fine. But I’m driving.”
Sarah has shown Dani how to do a lot of things at this point; how to fire a gun, siphon gas and take out a security camera but for all the lessons, the one thing that Dani is still terrible at is driving a car. She has a fake licence now, another gift of Sarah’s, but if they got stopped, it would be all over, so Dani has to use all of her concentration just to drive at the right speed limit along the highway.
It doesn’t help that she keeps craning over her shoulder to check on Grace’s sleeping form in the backseat every five minutes, but a little part of her still needs reassurance that she’s actually there and breathing.
The tenth time she does it and nearly swerves them off the road, Sarah cracks her eyes open in the passenger’s seat and snaps, “Look kid, she’s followed you across half of America at this point, she’s not going anywhere. Eyes on the road.”
“I know.” Dani mutters, flexing her hands around the wheel. “I know that.”
Sarah is silent for a blissful two minutes and Dani almost hopes the conversation will end at that.
Then Sarah clears her throat and says, “So the two of you seemed pretty friendly back there. I always did wonder if there was something going on there. Never seemed like a good time to ask.”
Dani gives her an incredulous look because Really, now? Now is the moment that Sarah decides to get chatty?
“I was just happy to see her again,” she says firmly, and Sarah laughs softly.
“Yeah, I bet. You looked it.”
“It’s not like that.” Dani says. “Grace and I- we’re from different timelines. She knew me when she was a child. To do anything like that would be wrong. A betrayal.”
She’s not sure how to say it, partly because the situation is so strange to think through.
The fact of the matter is that she and Grace met each other under very different circumstances. Dani had known her for a handful of days as a, admittedly very tall and attractive, adult. But from what Grace had implied, Dani had almost raised her as a child. She must have thought of Dani as a parent, a mother and suddenly Dani feels sick, thinking of Grace shrinking back from her.
What a stupid, irresponsible, selfish thing to do. But Dani couldn’t deny she had wanted to do it; had wanted it almost from the moment Grace had first offered to die for her.
“Time travel. Always so fucking messy.” Sarah says sympathetically. “But if it wasn’t so complicated-“
“Well, it is. So, let’s just leave it at that.”
“I didn’t know you felt that way. Not about her in particular but y’know…” And Sarah for once, looks almost uncomfortable, looking for the words. “Women.”
“Is that going to be a problem?” Dani says, defensively.
She had been fairly open about it in her old life; her brother had used to joke that Dani had more luck with woman than did and thinking of him saying that now makes her suddenly very lonely.
“No skin off my nose.” Sarah says and she sounds like she means it. “But now I’m surprised you accepted the whole ‘mother of the messiah’ thing so easily.”
“That never really made much sense.” Dani agrees, smiling a little at the road. “I never wanted children anyway.”
“Neither did I.” Sarah says sadly and when she goes quiet, Dani knows she’s thinking of John.
As dawn pokes up over the horizon, Sarah wakes up and Dani pulls over so Sarah can take over at the wheel.
Dani crawls into the back to fall asleep next to Grace, her exhaustion making her feel unreal, weightless.
When she wakes up again, they’re miles away and she’s slumped onto Grace’s shoulder with a mouthful of her own hair. For a moment she considers not opening her eyes, letting herself take the comfort of someone else’s warmth. But Grace would know, and Dani can tell by her breathing that she’s awake.
“Where are we?” She asks roughly, feeling Grace’s eyes watching her. “How long was I asleep?”
“Hours.” Sarah says, like she’s disappointed in Dani’s weakness in needing to rest. “And you’ll see soon enough. We’re nearly there.”
“Where’s there?” Dani asks suspiciously and then when Sarah doesn’t reply, she looks over at Grace who is watching her with steady blue eyes.
“I think.” Grace says slowly. “That it might be the Nevada desert.”
Then Dani looks out of the window and for the first time she realizes that there is nothing around them but tawny mountains and the endless, looming sky.
It’s late autumn and they aren’t Sarah reassures them, up high enough to be too hot, but the heat still hits her like a wave when they get out of the car for the first time, drying out the air in her lungs and prickling on her skin.
“This is- “she begins and behind her Sarah slams the car door shut and says, with a hint of real pride, “Home sweet home.”
“This is a wreck.” Grace says flatly and Dani gives her a worried glance, secretly thinking the same thing.
The cabin in front of them, if it can be called that, is a ramshackle construction of what looks like mostly aluminium sheeting. A large, sun scorched tree leans against it and Dani wonders vaguely of the tree is holding the house up or if it’s the other way around.
“What are you waiting for?” Sarah asks, brushing past them to the front door. “You want a red-carpet reception?”
She pulls a key out of her pocket and then struggles with the door when it jams.
“Let me.” Grace says and then with a well-aimed kick, the door falls open with a creak of corroded metal.
“Well look at that.” Sarah drawls. “I forgot your freaky super strength.”
“Anytime.” Grace says dryly as Sarah pushes past her inside.
Dani goes to follow but hesitates on the doorway, strangely unwilling to step into the dark.
“Are you okay?” Grace asks her, holding open the door and Dani almost laughs at that, because she’s not the one who’s come back from the dead.
“I’m fine.” Dani tells her and then hesitates. “I’m really glad you found me. That you came after me.”
Grace blinks, looking almost puzzled. “Of course I did. I always will.”
Dani nods and wonders what kind of person she’ll become in the future to earn such devotion from someone like Grace.
The inside of the shack is a little nicer than Dani expected. Then again, she hadn’t expected much. There’s a tiny kitchen in one corner and a broken radio on a table by a small netted window. The walls are lined with metal shelving; filled with metal cans and boxes and other supplies but there are touches of home too; a threadbare couch and a faded carpet on the linoleum floor.
“This is, uh...” Dani starts and then trails off, not sure what to say.
“It’s very functional.” Grace says with genuine praise and Dani wonders if this is what she’s used to, out there in the future.
“There’s a washroom through there.” Sarah says briskly, pointing. “And over here is my room. You two can use the other one if you need to sleep. I think there’s still a camp bed.”
Dani nods vaguely, not really listening. Her attention is drawn by a piece of paper, pinned to the refrigerator door. When Dani comes closer she can see it’s a child’s drawing, done in red and blue crayon; two figures holding hands with a big sun shining in the background. Dani reaches out to trace it and then thinks better of it.
It’s strange to think of Sarah as a mother, pinning her child’s drawing up on display. Dani’s mother had never been alive to do that, but her father had made a huge fuss over everything she had scribbled as a child, showing it off proudly to the neighbours every time he ran into them in the hall.
“So what do we do now?” Grace asks, startling Dani out of her thoughts. “Are we safe here?”
“Those are some big questions.” Sarah says, throwing herself down on the sofa. “What do we do? We lay low. We rest up. We prepare Dani for whatever happens next.”
“And are we safe?” Dani asks, uncomfortable with the idea of being trained, like a dog. Or a soldier.
“This place is hard to find. And protected.” Sarah says smoothly and then looks her in the eye. “But no. We’re not safe. We’ll never be that. I thought you would have learnt that by now.”
They’re all unwashed and exhausted from days on the road so Dani doesn’t even care that the shower in the washroom is filthy or that the water is low pressure and smells faintly off. She’s just grateful to be standing under running water for the first time in days, feeling her shoulders untense, the sweat and fear sluicing off her body and down into the drain.
Once Dani had used shampoo and conditioner and body wash that smelt like lavender and she hadn’t even known that it was a luxury. Now she’s pathetically grateful for army surplus all-purpose soap and a scratchy towel.
When she gets out of the shower she stands for a moment, hair dripping onto the floor, looking at the sad pile of dirty clothes she had stripped out of. The idea of getting back into them is somehow unbearably frustrating so she wraps herself in the towel instead and goes to ask Sarah if she has any spare clothes tucked away in her doomsday provisions.
That night Sarah disappears into her room early, closing the door behind her with a final clunk. Dani watches her go, wondering as she always does, what Sarah does when she isn’t sleeping or eating or fighting. Dani can’t picture her watching television or reading or anything really, beyond maybe polishing her endless guns or maybe drinking herself to sleep with a bottle of whiskey.
Dani wonders if that’ll be her too, soon. Stuck out in this barren shack in the middle of a desert. How long would they be here? Sitting on the sofa with her legs tucked up to her chest, the days stretch out in front of her, endless.
“I wish the radio worked.” Grace says quietly beside her, as if she was thinking the same thing and Dani risks a glance in her direction.
Grace looks tired, more slumped that sitting, staring out of the window at the darkness of the desert. The low light from the single lamp catches the glow of her hair, making her blue eyes darker than they should be.
“Did you listen to music?” Dani asks her, a little surprised. “Where you came from?”
It feels stupid to say, the future.
“There was an underground radio station operating.” Grace says distantly. “For a while, until they found it. And then after that, we still had music players. Speakers, gramophones later, when we worked out that low tech was safer. But we had to be careful. They could hear things we couldn’t. So a lot of the time we had to be quiet.”
She pauses and then looks down, blonde lashes very pale in the lamplight. “That’s what I remember now. Noises. Gunfire and screaming. But mostly the quiet. The waiting in the dark.”
Dani hates the expression on her face so she stretches out her leg, so her socked foot nudges at Grace’s leg.
“What was your favourite?” She asks. “To listen to?”
“There was one singer.” Grace says, looking up at her and then gives a crooked half smile. “My dad played him, I think, when I was a kid. Bruce Springsteen. I remember my dad would say, listen close Gracie, this is the Boss. He knows what it is.”
“What what is?” Dani asks, frowning and Grace just looks over at her and shrugs.
“I don’t know but it must have been important.”
Dani laughs a little at her expression and Grace smiles at her again, head tilted.
“My brother was like that. He would always be singing; in the shower or cooking. Even when he had the radio on he would sing along to that.” Dani tells her. “He wanted to be the next Bruno Mars.”
Grace wrinkles up her nose. “Who’s that?”
“Some singer. American.”
“Was he your favourite too?”
“No. I’ve always preferred women.” Dani says and then realizes how that sounds. “Singers. I’ve always preferred female singers.”
When they go to bed the problem is immediately apparent. The room is tiny, more of an airing cupboard than anything and while the camp bed isn’t tiny the fact remains that there is only one of it.
“I’ll sleep on the sofa.” Grace says at the same time that Dani tells her, “You can have the bed.”
They both pause and look at each other and then Dani says, “You’re much taller than me Grace. Your feet will come off the end.”
“That will happen on the bed too. You take it.” Grace says stubbornly. “The sofa has fleas.”
Dani hides a shudder because that isn’t an exaggeration, she had seen something crawling under a cushion earlier, but she doesn’t want to lose the fight.
“Look.” She says, “Let’s just share then alright? We’re both tired, and we’ve slept in worse places.”
Grace kind of freezes up for a moment but before Dani can backtrack, Grace is nodding slowly.
“Yeah. Anything is good compared to the morgue slab.”
Dani smiles weakly at her but feels a little sick all the same. She can see it so clearly; Grace lying there still and cold.
I won’t let her die for me again, she had told Sarah. Is that what she’s doing now, letting Grace follow her all the way here? But Grace won’t leave her, Dani knows that, unless maybe Dani told her to go. But Dani won’t do that. She’s not strong enough yet.
All these things are running through her head as she lies on her side in the narrow bed, staring at the square of moonlight on the wall. Both of them had been very careful not to touch each other when they had climbed into bed, but Dani can sense the long solid lines of Grace’s body behind her. If Dani moved just an inch, then they would be touching.
It takes a long time to fall asleep.
The days after that melt together in the heat.
Dani’s days are consumed by education. Sarah continues her lessons; how to leave no trace, how to survive, how to strip and assemble a gun in under a minute. Grace teaches her history; which is to say; she tells her about the future. She tells Dani about the robots, about the power wars, about the scavengers and the gangs that form to squabble over the wreckage of the world.
Her mind consumed by weapons and death; Dani escapes into the faded comic books she finds hidden under the bed. Inside their torn pages, superheroes in brightly costumes wage war over abstract concepts; truth and justice and freedom. Grace tells her that wars in the future will be fought over bread and heat and water. Dani prefers the comic book fights; she likes the illustrations better, world where even the violence is colourful.
This was once John’s room; Dani is sure of that now. It’s not just the remnants of him that remain; the baseball in the corner; the torn poster of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on the wall. It’s in the way that Sarah never goes into the room, never looks at the door to it if she can help it.
Sarah sees her reading one day and says nothing but then the next day she tosses Dani a dog-eared copy of The Art of War. Dani wonders if this is a joke of some kind but she reads it anyway.
To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy. Dani reads that and thinks of her father’s flesh melting away, becoming metal.
A speech bubble rising from the mouth of a man in a flag reads, I only fight for peace!
Dani wonders if that’s what she fought for. Where is the peace that she earned? That Grace deserves? Sarah seems to have been fighting her whole life without finding it. In the end Dani didn’t fight for anything really; not to save the day or win the war. Just to survive.
Every night Dani and Grace go to sleep with a safe barrier of space between them. Every morning they wake wrapped up together, Dani’s head against Grace’s collarbone, Grace’s arms around her waist. Neither of them talk about it.
Sarah goes out to check the perimeter defences every day without fail.
They’re all waiting for something; Dani can sense it; some invisible trap jaws to come crashing down around them. The police siren to wail through the desert air. The sound of metal feet on sand. Sometimes Dani watches Grace out of the corner of her eye, coming out of the shower or hunched over the broken radio with a screwdriver and thinks that maybe she’s waiting for something else entirely.
They are sat like this one morning, Grace with her radio and Dani re-reading The Invincible Iron Man Issue 42 for the third time when Sarah walks in and slams the door behind her. Dani looks up from over the comic book and immediately knows that there’s going to be a fight.
Sarah doesn’t look particularly different, as brusque as ever as she slams open a cabinet to get at the bottles of water, but Dani has been living in a confined space with her for months now and she can tell when the mood has turned ugly.
“How’s the reading?” Sarah snaps, narrowing her eyes when she catches Dani looking. “Learning much?”
“Yes.” Dani says coolly, without elaborating because she knows better than to try and talk to Sarah when she’s like this, twitchy and raring for a fight.
“You don’t think maybe you’re wasting time with that shit?” Sarah asks, taking an angry swig from the water bottle and leaning back against the counter.
“We’ve been here for over a week, sitting around and doing nothing.” Dani says, staring hard at the panels in front of her until they blur into smudges of colour. “I have nothing but time.”
“In case you haven’t noticed, princess, there’s a big fucking clock running down on all of.” Sarah says, low and nasty.
“Would you back off?” Grace snaps and Dani glances over to see she’s laid down the screwdriver with a rattle on the table. “Dani knows that. Lay off.”
Sarah’s head whips over to focus in on her new target in a second.
“Sorry we can’t all treat her with kid gloves. You should know better than anyone, she’s got a long way to go if she’s going to be ready for what happens.”
“She will be,” Grace says and actually stands up, pushing the table back so hard some of the spare parts skitter onto the floor. “She didn’t need your help the first time either- she learnt it all on her own.”
Dani feels suddenly horribly tired of this; the claustrophobia, the tension, the heat of it all, so she gets up and leaves without a word, closing the cabin door behind her gently. She thinks she can hear Grace calling her name from inside but she doesn’t want to go back inside so instead she just walks out over the sand.
She keeps walking until she reaches the bottom of one of the surrounding low hills and then she climbs. She doesn’t stop until she’s out of breath and then when she turns around the building is like nothing at all beneath her, a child’s toy left in a sandbox.
Dani finds a rock to sit down on and then she lies down on her back, feeling the sun beating down on her. She should have brought the comic book with her or maybe the Art of War but she’s sick of English words and voices. She misses Spanish desperately; misses reading the back of the cereal packet, the subtitles under some imported movie. Her father’s voice.
After a while she feels a shadow fall over her and when she looks up, Grace is standing there, haloed in the light of the sun. She looks very tall like this; like an avenging angel come down from the heavens. She’s holding out something; a pair of sunglasses.
“Thank you.” Dani says and takes them begrudgingly.
“I’m sorry.” Grace says and Dani shrugs, wanting to be angry but finding it hard with Grace looking at her like that, all anxious blue eyes.
“Cabin fever.” Dani says simply and then moves over on the rock to let Grace sit down next to her. She likes that phrase, the heat of it. They’re all going a little crazy here, the three of them in that tiny shack and Sarah at least was never that stable to start with.
For a while the two of them lie side by side on the hot rock, looking up at the blue sky above them. Dani risks a glance at Grace, the hard cut of her muscles in her white tank top, the hair falling in her eyes as she squints up. It’s a little longer than when they had first met, but not much.
“What am I like?” Dani asks abruptly. “In the future? When you first knew me?”
Grace frowns up at the sky. “You were… smart. And brave. You gave people hope. You were a hero to a lot of us.”
Dani thinks about the heroes in John Conner’s comicbooks; clenched fists and big smiles.
“Apart from that.” She presses. “In private. With you. Do I still read books? Do I have pictures of my family?”
Grace looks over at her, mouth twisted. “I don’t- I didn’t know you like that. I knew you as a General- a commander.”
“But you said I rescued you.” Dani says numbly. “As a child.”
“You saved a lot of people.” Grace says and then, a little strangely, like she wants to press home the point. “You didn’t raise me Dani.”
Dani blinks, revaluating. “So, I was your just your General?”
“You were my hero.” Grace says and then flushes, breaking eye contact.
Dani watches her profile, thinking about a future version of herself, grey haired and war- weathered, sending Grace off to die in the past. Not for the first time she feels a strange resentment towards this future-Dani; a stupid mix of anger and jealousy.
“I must have disappointed you. To be so ordinary.” She says and it was supposed to be a joke, but it comes out a little too bitter.
A single cloud is floating in the blue haze and Dani is trying to calm herself by watching but then she feels Grace’s hand brush hers between them on the rock, barely there at all, so just the tips of their fingers are touching.
“You weren’t a disappointment at all.” Grace says and Dani won’t look at her, can’t look at her, but her voice sounds a little thick. “I thought I knew you before- I thought I would be happy to die for you. But I didn’t know you- not really. And I’m happy that…”
She trails off and Dani waits, holding her breath because she needs to know what Grace is going to say, needs it more than anything else in the world.
“I’m glad I had this chance. That’s all.” Grace says finally and it sounds like she was going to say something different, but Dani just reaches out a little more, so their fingers are interlocked.
“You’re the best part of this, you know.” Dani tells her. “The only good thing.”
They sit there until the sun begins to dip in the horizon and then Dani’s stomach grumbles and she knows its time to go home. When she sits up and stretches, everything aches a little and she sighs, looking down at the shack far below them.
“We could stay out here.” Grace suggests. “Sarah told me there are ghost towns out in the valley. Maybe we could live there.”
“You aren’t scared of ghosts?” Dani asks her, smiling.
Grace stands up and extends a hand to help her up. “They can’t be fucking scarier than Sarah.”
Dani thinks about the ghost towns for days after that; empty streets and houses filling up with sand. The thought of it scares her a little; it feels like a prediction. Out here the apocalypse might have already happened.
Dani thinks about ghosts for three days and then on the fourth day she wakes up early, slips out from under Grace’s arm and begins building a grave. It’s high up on the hill, and she’s sweating by the time the sun comes up, lifting heavy stones into a pile. For a cross, Dani snaps dead branches off the tree next to the shack. She’s never been very religious, but her father was, and it feels right to make one for her brother too. Grace helps her carry them up and when Dani starts on the second marker, Grace helps her wordlessly.
After a while, a shadow falls over them and when Dani squints up, Sarah is watching, her arms crossed and frowning.
“That could be seen by air.” Sarah tells her but she doesn’t sound angry, just resigned. “I told you that funerals won’t help them.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Dani says, straightening up to her full height and setting her jaw. “It will help me.”
She pauses and then says softly, “It might help you too.”
Sarah looks at her, unreadable under the dark glasses and says nothing but then a little while later, Dani looks up to see Sarah has begun constructing her own small pile of stones.
Dani works until her fingers are scratched and her arms ache and then when they’re finally done and looking at what they’ve done, there are five mounds of rock on the hillside.
“For my parents.” Grace says when Dani gives her a questioning look.
“When it happens there won’t be enough time to bury the dead.” Sarah says matter-of-factly and Dani shudders a little, even in the heat.
“Then it’s good we did it now.” Grace says and Dani reaches out to take her hand.
“Seems a little pointless that’s all.” Sarah mutters but she’s staring at John’s grave marker, shoulders hunched in.
“The machines wouldn’t do it. It makes us human.” Dani says and she’s talking to herself more than anyone. “It’s not pointless.”
“Have you ever been to Vegas?” Sarah asks her the next morning in the middle of their daily target practice.
Dani squeezes the trigger and grins as another bottle explodes in a shower of glass.
“Before I met you, I had never even been to America.” She says. “Why?”
“We need to move on soon.” Sarah says. “I have another safe-house in Canada. I think we have a better chance of laying low up there. And to do that we need funds.”
Dani lowers the gun, alarmed. “Have they found us?”
“Not yet.” Sarah says grimly. “But it’s only a matter of time. Best to stay on the move. I’ve been talking to Grace- she thinks we should start setting up plans before D-Day. Try and get the word out about areas that are safe. Maybe some kind of pirate radio channel- we’ll just be another bunch of nutjob conspiracists but hey, maybe someone will listen.”
Dani looks in shock and then starts grinning. “You want to save them.”
Sarah clears her throat, looking away. “Well, I’ve run out of things to kill for now. So, I might as well. It won’t stop the end of the world but at least we can try huh?”
Dani hugs her and Sarah snaps, “Jesus, watch out for the fucking gun,” but doesn’t push her away.
Dani is almost sad to drive away in the end, sad when she thinks of the comic books left stashed under the bed, the bed itself where she and Grace were still waking up next to each other every morning. She notices the drawing has been taken down from the fridge though and she wonders if Sarah has packed it away in her bags, careful of the fragile paper.
It’s not a long drive to Vegas and they enter the city limits as the sun is setting and people are everywhere; spilling out into the streets under neon lights and stuck in traffic blaring on their horns. Dani is used to crowds, but after weeks of empty desert even she is disorientated.
Whatever she is feeling is nothing compared to Grace’s reaction to the city. She spends the last half hour of the journey with her nose practically pressed against the glass, eyes as wide as a rabbit in headlights.
“There’s so much light.” She says at one point, when they’ve reached the main strip. “And the fountains… this is a desert, how do they afford the water?”
Dani shrugs because she doesn’t really understand it herself. “It brings in money I suppose.”
“The waste.” Grace mutters, but she sounds almost impressed by the scale of it.
They stash the car in a dark alleyway and before they leave, Sarah rummages around in the back until she pulls out a small shiny black device, tucking it into her back pocket.
“What is that?” Grace asks, frowning and Sarah grins at her, shrugging out of her jacket.
“Little toy I got a while back. Give me five minutes with that baby and a slot machine and it’s payday. Plastic to avoid the metal detectors.”
Dani is more distracted by whatever it is that Sarah is now zipping herself into.
“That’s uh, very pink.” She says and Sarah rolls her eyes, adjusting the hood.
“This is a disguise. I need to blend in if we don’t want anyone catching on.” She says and slips on an oversized pair of sunglasses.
When they get to the first casino Dani understands. The building is milling with woman dressed like Sarah; a little older maybe with more teased hairstyles. With the ugly pink jacket to hide her muscles Sarah could almost be one of them as she slides onto a seat in front of a flashing machine.
“Are these just games?” Grace hisses into Dani’s ear as the two of them stand awkwardly to the side. “What’s the point?”
“Money.” Dani tells her. “And the thrill. It’s just gambling.”
“We used to play cards in the barracks. We didn’t have much to gamble with though. Cigarettes mostly. Candy bars.” Grace tells her, looking around at the flashing lights, the canned music playing over the speakers. Waiters and men in dark suits circulate the room and Dani shrinks back against the wall.
A moment later Sarah hits paydirt and she cashes out almost immediately, coming back to shove handfuls of new notes into Dani’s hands.
“Take this and go away.” She says bluntly. “You two stick out and I’ll be doing this all night. I’ll meet you outside the front doors at 7 sharp tomorrow.”
“What- are you sure?” Dani splutters made nervous by the crisp weight of the money. “What do we do till then?”
“I don’t know kid. Go see Elvis, watch a lightshow. Don’t get mugged.” Sarah says, her attention already on the next machine.
Dani turns to Grace, making a face. “Do you want to see Elvis?”
Grace’s brow furrows in concern. “Isn’t he dead at this point in the timeline?”
Outside of the air-conditioned casino, away from the blaring lights, the city is a dark messy sea of noise and traffic. Grace takes a step in the crowd and looks lost, staring at the endless stream of people and lights.
“It’s so much.” Grace says, so quietly that Dani has to press a little closer to hear. People are brushing at them, pushing past and Dani uses the excuse to put her hand on Grace’s leather jacket, anchoring herself.
“What is?” She asks. “The noise? The people?”
“All of it. Everything.” Grace says, and when she looks down Dani realizes suddenly how close they are, notices the way that Grace leans down towards her, like they’re alone in the world.
Dani takes a breath and then on the exhale it comes out, almost without any input from her brain.
“Do you want to get a hotel room?”
It turns out they have enough cash to book a room, they have more than enough, in fact a worrying amount. Enough to skip right past the now- familiar sleazy motels and head right for the large hotels in the centre of the city, with gold and marble foyers.
Grace takes one look at the fishpond in the lobby and stops dead in her tracks and Dani has to practically drag her over to the reception desk.
“Should we be doing this?” Grace whispers, ducking her head to Dani’s. “Shouldn’t we check with Sarah?”
“She would just say no.” Dani tells her, “A wise warrior avoids the battle.”
“Is that from the Art of War?” Grace asks, narrowing her eyes but by then the attendant has arrived back with their room key card.
In the elevator, Grace is still fretting but Dani is busy watching the buttons light up as they go up ten floors, twenty, thirty, ascending into the heavens. In the mirrored doors Dani can see the two of them, dirty and out of place in all of the shine and glitter. Dani realizes with a shock that she hasn’t seen her reflection in weeks, not since before the desert. It’s not like looking at a stranger; it’s the same eyes and face and small frame but something’s changed. Maybe it’s in the way she’s standing, like a fighter or maybe it’s just Grace beside her, tall and solid.
“What if they find us here? No fire escapes. I don’t know if I’m repaired enough if there’s a fight-“ Grace says outside in the carpeted corridor and Dani tries to give her a reassuring smile.
“Grace, listen.” Dani says, looking up at her very seriously. “We’ve been sleeping on a tiny camp bed for months. Before that you were dead. I can’t even remember when I last used conditioner- we need this.”
Grace takes a deep breath and nods. “Okay. Alright.”
But Dani is the one who almost tries to leave when she sees the inside of their room. Dani’s English has always been good and no more so than now, after months immersed in it without a break, but even she’s having trouble finding the words to describe it. Opulent works maybe but so does tacky, glamorous, over-the top and most of all expensive. One wall is nothing but glass windows, opening out onto a balcony that overlooks the city at night. There’s a fully stocked bar and a wide-screen television and in the bathroom, there are golden taps and a bath big enough for three people, maybe five. In the centre of the room is a huge round bed and Dani flushes looking at it, wondering why she didn’t think to ask for twin beds.
Grace, who looks like she’s in a state of shock, blinks up at the ceiling and asks, “Why would you put mirrors up there? That seems impractical.”
Dani feels her face get somehow hotter and she mumbles some excuse before heading straight for the shower and closing the door behind her.
She hadn’t brought Grace here to seduce her; she had just wanted to give her a taste of real luxury, but Dani is suddenly awfully aware of how this looks. She stands for a long time under the shower, trying out every type of product on offer and all she can think of is Grace moving around in the room next door. By the time Dani steps out of the shower and shrugs into one of the fluffy white bathrobes she smells of sandalwood and jasmine and her skin feels softer than it has in weeks, but she can’t relax into it, fiddling with her wet hair and peering into the mirror. She feels strangely nervous, like she’s about to jump off a cliff with her eyes shut.
She opens the door and for a moment she can only see an empty room. Her heart gives a strange lurch and she’s suddenly horribly afraid that Grace has left her, or worse that she had never been here at all, that Dani had only dreamt that she had returned from the dead at all. Then Dani feels the night air on her still-damp skin and sees that the door to the balcony is open.
Dani goes out, still barefoot and Grace is standing by the balcony, looking out at the city stretched below them. Grace has discarded her jacket somewhere and she’s only in her black tank top- Dani can see the lines of cybernetic enhancement on her skin, even in the dark, like faint silver threads on her back and arms.
“What are you doing out here?” Dani asks softly.
“I was thinking about all the lights. All of the people.” Grace says, not turning. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many in my life. Not above ground at least.”
“So much energy. It must seem wasteful to you.”
“Yes. The older survivors all said that. How much was produced, discarded.” Grace says and then pauses. “But it’s beautiful too. I never thought that it would be so beautiful.”
Dani steps forward and then, without really thinking about it, takes a step forward and then Grace is turning and looks at her, really looks at her, as if for the first time. It’s a look that’s terrifying in its honesty, in its open unabashed hunger, and Dani wonders she could ever have doubted that Grace wanted this too, and as she thinks that, Grace steps forward and kisses her.
Dani isn’t surprised but she’s shaken by the intensity, the almost desperate way that Grace’s hands come up to cradle her face and Dani can do is lean up on her tiptoes to deepen the kiss. It should be gentle or careful; it’s only their second after all but Dani’s been waiting for this so long that she can’t hold back, not even a little.
“Is this? Is this alright? Do you want this?” Grace gasps, pulling away, eyes wide and Dani just laughs and pulls her back down, saying, “Yes, God, I want it. I’ve wanted it since I first saw you.”
This seems to be all the permission Grace needs to continue, walking them back till Dani’s back hits the cool glass and Dani is going half crazy, from the need to get closer, in any way possible. She doesn’t care that she’s only wearing one thin layer against the night air, doesn’t care that this is verging on public indecency at this point, she just needs Grace to keep kissing her like that, like she can’t get enough either. Her hands fist in Grace’s short hair and then Grace is sliding her hands up Dani’s thighs and lifting her up, pressing her back. Dani wraps her legs around Grace’s waist and holds on tight, feeling reckless; impulsive.
“God, you’re so strong.” Dani mutters, against Grace’s neck and Grace just laughs, a little wildly and leans in to kiss at the soft spot below her ear.
“I can’t believe this is really happening.” Grace says brokenly. “Is it? I’m not dead am I?”
“You’re not dead.” Dani tells her, working at Grace’s shirt, and pressing her hand down to feel her heartbeat just to check. “Why is it so hard to believe? I kissed you didn’t I?”
“That was a long time ago. And we never talked about it after. I thought that-“
“I was just happy to see you?” Dani finishes for her. “I was. But that’s not why I did it.”
She stifles Grace’s next words with a kiss and then Dani has her hands under Grace’s shirt, pushing up the fabric to leave her exposed; her small perfect breasts, the scars, the faint lines of the cybernetic enhancements. Dani leans back to drink her in, the sight of her, the muscled shoulders and sweet open face and it’s insane that they’re here, after everything, holding each other like this.
All at once, Dani hates the idea of being seen like this, of anyone else looking in on them in this moment, a strange possessive anger taking her over at the idea of anyone else seeing Grace’s pale, naked back, even in the dark of their balcony, so she looks up and says, “Take me inside. I want to do this properly.”
Grace carries her inside and gently lowers her onto the big double bed, like Dani is precious and wonderful and all the while Dani is going half-crazy with the need to be fucked. It’s like something dangerous, something out of control, how much she wants Grace, now that she’s let herself feel it. All the mornings they had woken up wrapped around each other, all the times that Dani had looked or caught Grace looking are coming unspooled now. Dani shrugs off her shirt, unhooking her bra and barely has time to see the glazed expression pass across Grace’s face before she pulls Grace down onto her.
Grace touches her but lightly, her hands skimming over Dani’s breasts like she’s skittish, afraid. It still makes Dani shiver, the touch of her but she places her hands over Grace’s anyway, pressing them down and saying, “It’s alright, I want this. I want you to touch me.”
“Alright.” Grace says. “Alright.”
And so she does, long fingers on Dani’s chest, her waist, reaching down to push away her dressing down. Dani arches her back to let Grace slide it off and the movement is awkward and ungainly, and Dani thinks it’s the sexiest thing that’s ever happened to her. Every part of her body feels electrically charged, running along the inside of her calves, her thighs, over her breasts and neck, making her hands clench around air. When Grace reaches down to touch her between her legs, Dani is slippery slick and aching for it, almost jumping at the touch.
Oh god, she can hear herself say and then more, a steady stream of words until Dani can’t be sure if she’s speaking English of Spanish or just nonsense words.
Grace is clumsy and clearly unused to this movement, but it takes almost no time at all before Dani is coming around her fingers, crying out her first orgasm into her fist.
“Is that good? Do you feel good?” Grace asks her through the haze and Dani almost laughs, giddy with the aftershocks.
“Yes.” She says. “God, yes. Let me- can I?”
She doesn’t know how to say it and Grace looks nonplussed so Dani just rolls out and over so she’s the one looking down at Grace, the rigid set of her muscled arms against the sheets. Dani takes a moment just to look and then she’s moving down, past Grace’s small breasts and the flat rigid plane of her stomach to her thighs.
“Dani are you-“Grace asks and Dani looks up at her through the hair that’s fallen in her face.
“Has anyone done this for you before?”
“Yes.” Grace says, hushed on an exhale. “There was someone, back when I was training. It was- it was convenient. She used to sneak into my bunk at night.”
Dani pauses, not sure if this was the answer she had wanted. She feels a stupid rush of jealousy but there’s something satisfying about having this new facet of Grace revealed to her.
She smiles against the smooth skin of Grace’s inner thigh and mouths gently against the skin, just hard enough to leave a faint red mark. She feels Grace shudder, hears her sigh and then Dani leans in a little further to taste the warm, wet heat of her. Grace is all hard muscle and scars but here she is soft and yielding and the noises she makes are soft too, like she’s used to holding her breath.
Dani doesn’t want that though, she wants more, she’s greedy for any reaction, so she uses her hands and mouth until Grace is calling out almost brokenly. It’s addicting the feeling of doing this to her, of destroying Grace so completely and Dani doesn’t stop until Grace has come twice and Dani’s jaw is aching. She would keep going even then, but Grace pulls her up and onto her lap and fucks Dani with her fingers, biting at her neck until she comes for the second time.
Sometime after that Dani leans back against Grace’s chest and says, “Are you looking forward to Canada? Do you think Sarah will find it strange if we keep sharing a room.”
Grace shifts and a little water slops over the edge onto the tiled floor. They had run a bath at some point; Dani isn’t sure when or even what time it is. She had lost track a long time ago, but she knows it isn’t long now, till dawn and their rendezvous with Sarah. At this rate neither of them will sleep tonight.
“I don't think Sarah finds anything strange anymore. I hope this cabin has one of these.” Grace says, tracing her hand over the edge of the tub. “You know, this is the first bath I’ve ever had. This would have been an insane waste of water.”
“Did you imagine your first time being in a bathtub the size of a swimming pool?” Dani asks, closing her eyes in the steam, lulled by the feeling of Grace’s hand in her hair.
“No.” Grace says dryly. “But I didn’t imagine I would be sharing it with you either.”
Dani smiles lazily and turns her cheek so it rests against Grace’s chest; she can feel the rough scar tissue.
“Did you ever think of me like that? The future me?” Dani asks quietly, her eyes still closed. “Or do I become very unappealing in my old age?”
“You weren’t that much older than me.” Grace objects. “Only ten years or so. And no.”
“No, you didn’t think of me?” Dani asks. “Or no I’m not unappealing?”
“You were appealing. You are appealing. And I thought of you a lot. All the time.”
Grace pauses and Dani listens for her heartbeat, just a little faster than the average human.
“You had a crush?” Dani prods at last.
“I wouldn’t have called it that.” Grace says defensively and then considers. “More like hero worship I suppose. You saved me.”
“Then you saved me.” Dani says, thinking of the first time they had met, on the factory floor. “We saved each other.”
“And now we’ll save the world. Or part of it at least.” Grace says, sounding almost convincing, and Dani thinks of poor, dead John Connor’s comic book heroes, holding flags and smiling in bright colours. It won’t be that easy, Dani knows that but, in this moment, in Grace’s arms, she believes for the first time that she might be someone who could, at the very least, make a difference. And she won’t be alone.
Dani opens her eyes and Grace is watching her, pale eyelashes skimming her cheekbones. Dani leans up to kiss her, for the simple reason that she can now; there’s nothing to stop her.
“Alright. Let’s save the world then.” Dani says when she pulls away. “But let’s start tomorrow.”