In honor of the fact that Avatar 2 is finally, actually going to release this year, here’s a satirical short story I wrote in 2017, back when we thought the idea of all those long-delayed Avatar sequels was a total joke.
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes. (~3,000 words)
James Cameron’s Terminator
Today was the big day. After all those years toiling over the scripts, perfecting every plot, and giving each character arc enough emotional weight to sink the Titanic three times over, today was the day James Cameron would present his pitch to the movie studios for the sequels to Avatar. As he walked down the Hollywood sidewalk of immortalized stars, he was as giddy as he remembered being the first time he landed a directing gig all those years ago. There was no way the studio would reject these scripts. They were a masterpiece. And together, with his direction, they would form the backbone of the best cinematic quintilogy America had ever seen.
Suddenly, there was a great flash of light in front of him. James shielded his eyes from chaotically crackling lightning that seemed to erupt from the very earth below him. When the roar of surging electricity faded, James opened his eyes.
In front of him stood a naked man—face expressionless, eyes unfocused, standing upright with perfect posture, his muscular body as rigid as a rock. The man’s eyes focused. He looked around. Ignoring the small crowd of local celebrities and nonlocal tourists staring at him, he trained his sights directly on James. “James Cameron,” he said. “Prepare to be terminated.”
The man raised his arm toward James, and his hand turned into liquid metal. The molten steel transformed itself, re-condensed, and then the man had a gun in his hand, pointed directly at James.
At sight of the weapon, all confusion and curiosity fled from James’s mind, and he took off running as fast as he could. Through loud robotic stomps, he could tell that the man—the creature—the Terminator—was following him, and gaining on him. He jumped into a random alley, and was distraught to find that it led only to a brick wall dead end.
The robot followed him into the alley. James backed up, terrified as the android stepped closer, until James was up against the wall. He prayed that this was all a dream, all just a terrible nightmare that he would wake up from at any second. (All of it except the fact that he had finally finished the Avatar scripts; that part he very much wanted to stay real.) The bricks behind him chilled his neck, catching beads of sweat on their rough surface. This wasn’t a dream. Oh God, he was about to die.
The sound of a gunshot exploded in James’s ears, and then another, and another. Bullet holes appeared in the killer robot’s torso. The robot’s eyes unfocused again, and it put a hand over one of the holes in its chest. The creature went stiff and fell over, face slamming into the pavement. At the mouth of the alley, James saw the shooter. A young man with disheveled light brown hair and an olive green jacket held the smoking gun. The man looked to the person he saved. “James Cameron?” Petrified, James nodded emphatically. “Come with me if you want to live. Hurry, before it reboots!”
Beeps and the sounds of miniature pistons firing came from the body on the ground between them. The robot stirred. James ran like hell, jumping over the machine and escaping from the alley while the robot got back to its feet behind him. He followed his rescuer to a car in the street. “Get in!” James didn’t hesitate before getting inside the stranger’s car.
“What’s going on?!” James said to the man as they pulled away. Weaving through traffic, James started thinking he was just as likely to die in a crash as he was to die at the weaponized hand of the robot. “Who are you? What is that thing?”
“You of all people should know what that thing is,” the man said. He took them onto the main road out of town. James looked out the back window, watching the famous Hollywood sign get smaller in the distance. Despite the circumstances, he felt a moment of regret for the pitch meeting he was going to miss.
“That’s insane,” James said. “Terminators aren’t real. I made them up for a movie!”
“You gave the world the idea for them,” the man said. “Did you really think no one would ever try to build one?” As they passed the road sign marking the city limits, they continued to speed between cars on the multi-lane highway.
“Of course not!” James said. “The technology to build such a complicated machine doesn’t even exist yet!” At the last word, a switch flipped in James’s head that filled him with twice as much fear as the Terminator alone did. He didn’t want to believe it. It simply wasn’t possible. “Unless… It couldn’t be…”
The man nodded. “My name is Connor Jonn. That thing and I are both from the future.”
James laughed. He wasn’t sure why he was laughing; there was nothing funny about any of this. But he laughed anyway, and he wiped tears from his eyes, and he took deep breaths to regain control of himself. At this point, he was willing to believe anything if it could keep him alive. He only had one question left. “Why?”
“It all started when Avatar 2 came out in theaters,” Connor began. “No one expected it to do nearly as well as the first one. After all, what were the odds that a James Cameron movie could break the record for highest grossing movie in history not once, not twice, but three times in a row? Everyone thought it would just be another run of the mill sequel. Everyone assumed the first Avatar hadn’t left a big enough cultural imprint for the sequel to be successful. Everyone kept saying that, saying no one remembered Avatar, saying the sequel wouldn’t have as large an audience. And when it finally came out… everyone saw it anyway.” Connor sighed. “By the time Avatar 2 ended its theatrical run, it had a box office gross of over $4 billion.”
James nearly had a heart attack at hearing that number. That was an absolutely insane amount for a box office gross. It was over $1 billion more than the first Avatar movie received. It was over twice the amount Titanic had raised. There had been little doubt in his mind, but this confirmed it. The scripts James had spent the last decade working on truly were a masterpiece. He had to survive this so he could complete his dreams and finish all the movies.
Connor kept talking. “The same thing happened for the rest of the movies in the series, but there were fewer doubters every time. A year later, Avatar 3 got $7 billion. Two years later, Avatar 4 got $13 billion. I left a few weeks after Avatar 5’s release. At the time, it was on track to end up with over $20 billion… of pure profit.”
A chill crept up James’s spine. It tunneled into his brain, burrowing deep, leaving a trail of tingling titillation and exhilarating excitement. He would finish these movies if it was the last thing he did. Nothing on Earth or Pandora or anywhere else in this universe or any other would stop him, short of killing him in every timeline he ever drew an ounce of breath. “So, in the future, Avatar is unfathomably successful, and I’m unfathomably rich.” He didn’t need to wait for Connor’s nod of confirmation, but he took pleasure in the roundabout praise anyway. “Which I’m guessing also means I have a lot of enemies.”
“Bingo,” Connor said, swerving around a truck that was going just a few miles per hour too slow for his taste. The driver honked furiously at them for a few seconds, but gave up when she realized it was having no effect. “In my time, Hollywood is split into two camps. There’s your faction—all the actors and producers and fans who are leading the worldwide Avatar phenomenon to greater heights every day—and then… there’s everyone else.”
There was a loud crash behind them. Against his better judgment, James turned his head to look. The truck that was behind them had toppled. Its cargo container lay sideways across the highway, shredded and smoking and blocking off all traffic behind it. But ahead of the overturned truck and rapidly closing in on James and Connor, there was a single motorcycle with an unhelmeted, leather-cloaked rider, whose skin had a dangerously metallic tone.
Connor glimpsed the mechanical monster in his rear view mirror. “History lesson’s over. We’ve got company.”
“I hadn’t noticed,” James said sarcastically.
Ignoring the remark, Connor sped up. By James’s estimation, they had to be going at least ninety miles per hour. There were still cars ahead of them, and it seemed clear that Connor was bent on using them for cover. At another time, James might have considered that unethical. Right now, he only prayed that it would work.
The Terminator took a hand off the motorcycle’s handlebars, aiming its gun at their car. It opened fire. Connor swerved between lanes, trying to throw off the robot’s targeting system. James felt sick from all the violent motion. Bullets whizzed past the car, some clanging against its side, some going into other vehicles. Other drivers rushed to get away from the maniacs involved in the chase.
When the dust settled and the road was mostly clear of obstacles, James hazarded another look behind them. The Terminator was there, right on their trail. “It’s right behind us!” Connor slammed on the brakes. James’s body suddenly lurched forward, held back only by the seatbelt. The Terminator must have expected the sudden deceleration as little as James had, because it crashed into the back of the car with a loud thud, falling over its motorcycle and rolling on the ground as Connor was already accelerating away.
“That was too close,” Connor said. “We might not be so lucky next time.” He pulled into the rightmost lane and took the next exit off the highway. “We’ll need to keep a low profile until I can do what I came here to do.”
James eyed the man warily. There was something Connor wasn’t telling him. Shrugging it off, he decided he would let it be for now. He was still at his limit for life-upending revelations, and he would probably be there for the rest of the day (if not the rest of his life). For now, James was content to let the time traveling stranger drive him through unfamiliar suburbs on the outskirts of Hollywood.
Time passed. James had no idea where Connor was taking them, but eventually he parked them outside a public library. “What are we doing here?” James asked. It was late evening by now. James’s phone had been buzzing nonstop for hours. But Connor had told him not to answer it, lest the Terminator use the call signal to track him down again. He also had to disable the phone’s GPS. He wished he knew where they were.
“This library has public computers and fast Wi-Fi,” Connor said, as if that answered anything. “The sooner we can get in and out of here, the better.” He stepped out of the car. James had no choice but to follow.
The interior of the library was humble and simplistic. Just a few rows of books, one rack of old movies on DVD, and a checkout counter featuring a very bored librarian. There were only two other people in the small building, and they were both staring at the newcomers. James knew his name was famous, but his face was far from it. He realized they were specifically staring at Connor, whose scowl was cold enough to make water freeze, and hard enough to crack it.
Connor paid little attention to the library-goers. He marched straight to the back wall, against which sat a rickety wooden desk, upon which sat a computer that must have seen better years even by the 2000s. This dump had fast Wi-Fi? James wondered what they even needed internet for. He half had it in his mind to pull out his phone and offer for Connor to use that, if only to spare the dusty desktop here the heart attack it would surely have if Connor tried to boot it. But as his hand drifted toward his pocket, the threat of the Terminator tracking them down kept his hand from reaching in.
The desktop’s Windows XP boot sequence was a blast from the past for James, which meant it must have been an outright Precambrian explosion to Connor, but the time traveler merely took to tapping his fingers against the wood of the desk. That and the computer’s hum were the only sounds in the library, save for the occasional flip of a page. James watched Connor watch the computer as intensely as if he were watching the first cut of a movie in development—and with only slightly more dread.
To James’s surprise, the computer managed to start up just fine, if a little slowly. Connor logged in as a guest, opened the browser, and navigated to a website James didn’t recognize. It looked like some kind of file upload site. Connor reached into a jacket pocket and pulled out something small and shiny. It was a USB drive. Connor plugged it into the machine, and went on with transferring the drive’s contents to the library computer.
“What the hell’s on that thing?” James asked, seeing the transfer in progress. Those files were gigantic! And Connor wanted to wait here and upload those files to the internet? He didn’t care how fast the Wi-Fi was; this whole thing was ludicrous. The librarian shushed him, and it took everything he had not to shush the librarian back.
“I haven’t been entirely forthcoming,” Connor whispered. “I came back in time with one mission, and it wasn’t to save you from the Terminator. I did that on my own, as a fan of the Avatar series, as my way of saying thanks for giving the world the great gift you gave it. But my true mission—the only reason I’m here—is to spread these files.”
James was taken aback at that revelation, but he didn’t let that slow him down. “What are the files?” he asked again.
“The old factions of Hollywood think they can prevent you from finishing the Avatar saga.” Connor looked at the USB drive, a sly grin on his face. “What they don’t know is, you already have.”
James would have gasped in shock, had the library’s door not opened at that exact moment. The librarian screamed. James and Connor jolted around to look. It was the Terminator. Its clothes were tattered and torn, evidence of their last encounter on the highway. The skin of its face was half ripped off, revealing the cybernetic organs and hardware within. The machine’s glowing red eye centered on James. It walked toward him—expressionless, heartless, and ready to kill.
Connor pulled his gun out of his jacket. The Terminator didn’t even flinch as Connor’s bullets bounced off its metal skull. The gun ran out of ammo, and Connor tossed it aside and pulled a second gun from his pocket. The Terminator was only a few spans away.
The file transfer was almost complete. James’s magnum opus, his life’s work, about to be shared with the world without him ever putting forth an ounce of directorial effort (beyond finishing the scripts, that is). All that money, all those billions, all gone forever, lost to time and piracy and the Hollywood establishment’s need to maintain the status quo. And for the cherry on top, he was still completely expendable.
And then his muses spoke.
“Cover me,” James said. He turned to the computer, pulled out the USB drive, and sprinted into the next aisle of books with the USB drive still in his hand.
“What are you—hey!” Connor shot the Terminator one more time, then ran after James. The Terminator swiveled its head to follow them, but continued on at the same walking pace. It must have taken more damage on the highway than they realized. James tucked that fact into his mind as he jumped out the library’s door and bolted down the sidewalk.
James ran as fast as he could, knowing he’d probably have to keep running for the rest of his life. Connor chased behind him, but the lanky man was already struggling to keep up. The Terminator was completely out of sight. But James knew they would send more, if this one failed to get the job done. The Hollywood establishment were sycophants for sequels. But then, so was James.
He ran across an intersection during a brief lull in traffic, adding further distance between himself and Connor. If he could lose Connor for even just a couple hours, he was set for life. With James in possession of the USB drive, Connor would have to keep him alive. But if he could hide the drive somewhere Connor would never find it, he would be free to work on his movies while Connor was forced into the role of James’s personal bodyguard. The Avatar series would be completed through years of hard work as was always intended, not by the hand of his future self dropping it into his lap.
The future would be dangerous, but James had always known that. Feeling the cool wind rush against his face, James laughed. He was in complete control. He laughed, and he wiped tears from his eyes, and his mind raced as he tried to list the many things he would have to do now. But above all else, he had a pitch meeting to reschedule.