Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 13

In the end, they never got the go/no go signal from the future.

Camp Barstow was the most obvious trap in the world, and their small team of people was going to march in there all the same. Aside from the worryingly vague number of terminators on the premises, there were hundreds of soldiers engaged in training and held in reserve.

It was a nearly unbelievable lynchpin. The nascent Skynet was hooked into the cryptographic keys that could open backdoors in computers all over the world, not to mention the mistake (engineered or otherwise) which allowed Skynet access to the nuclear arsenal of the United States. As far as targets went, it couldn’t have been juicier, and given the probes that they’d carefully done via internet, it was going to be absolutely necessary to get direct physical access.

And the only way to do that with a dozen people was to punch straight through.

“This is not at all smart,” said Derek. The other Reeses were good guys, the kind that Derek would have loved to grow up with – the kind of man his brother had been, before the Second Judgment Day. He’d taken the name as a grim joke, but it felt like a good way to honor his brother. The other Kyles and Dereks had taken on nicknames, not seeming to mind, but they’d all apparently known him as a man in his fifties. It felt good to have so much family, but if it was hard to believe that Skynet had laid out actual bait for them, it was even harder to believe that they’d all make it through the day.

They rode in two large armored cars that they’d stolen from a bank, one of the biggest risks as far as secrecy went. If they failed, Skynet could track down where the cars had been stolen from and send terminators back to stop them on-site, which was just the sort of thing that Skynet liked to do. It had been a harrowing experience, and they’d all been carrying cyanide in case of capture, but the whole thing went smoothly, over in a flash.

Derek drove, with Able sitting in the seat next to him. In the back rode Sunny, Bison, Oscar, and Reed. Sunny was a female Reese, his sister of sorts, and she hung on Oscar’s arm – he was one of Sarah’s sons. Derek found it mildly distasteful, but they’d come through together and no one seemed to pay their relationship much mind. Reed and Bison were a Kyle and Derek, part of the second group that had come through. In boxes and crates all around them were weapons of every sort, including two massive sniper rifles brought from the future. Bison wore a bandolier of grenades, which Derek had never seen used against terminators before.

“Stupid?” asked Able. “Well, certainly. We’re going into the enemy’s house, and they almost certainly have capabilities that they haven’t shown to us. For all that the resistance fought, I don’t think that we were ever really an existential threat to it, not at any point past Judgment Day. If it were me, I would hold back the big guns, and even a moron like Skynet would probably agree with me. If I were Skynet, I’d launch my superweapon against us the moment we showed our faces and steal the drive from our corpses.” She had the drive on a keyring, and casually twirled it around her finger before slipping it back in her front pocket. “And then I’d run whatever test Skynet is running to see whether the AI is safe, and if it wasn’t I’d junk the drive and go about my merry way.”

“Why are we doing this then?” asked Derek.

Bison spoke up from the back. “Because we’re the toughest sons of bitches from across a dozen universes.”

“And more accurately,” added Able, “Because even if we die we provide valuable information for when we try this again in timeline whatever we’re up to.”

“Eight,” said Sunny from the back. “But it would be timeline nine that we’d get the no go signal in.”

Derek pulled to a stop a mile outside the base, just before a large hill. “Snipers out,” he said, but Sunny, Oscar, and Reed as spotter were already moving their kit. Before they left, Reed bumped heads with his brother, and Derek had to try hard not to think of his own brother.

Bison set the bombs in the back, and Derek gunned the engine hard. The three of them wore bulletproof vests and other protections, but speed of operation was paramount. The sniper team would be running to find a good position, hopefully in time to provide covering fire. The armored car broke through the wooden arm that blocked the entrance. In his rearview mirror, Derek could see the guard at the gatehouse running after them at an appreciable fraction of the speed their vehicle was moving. With a loud bang from the passenger seat, the terminator’s leg blossomed blood, revealing the metal underneath and causing him to tumble to the ground. When he got up he was limping, but by then they were nearing the thick cluster of buildings.

Derek spun the wheel and slammed on the brakes, swinging the car around until the back of it was pointed at the institutional double doors that were clearly marked with Cyberdyne’s logo. Bison kicked open the back door to the armored car and charged out with an SMG in either hand, and Derek was ducking out his door almost as fast.

People in uniforms were converging towards them quickly, shouting at them to stop. One of them, standing a hundred yards away, lifted his sidearm and pointed it directly at Derek with no expression on his face. The cyborg’s head promptly exploded, spraying flesh and metal to the ground courtesy of a depleted uranium round fired from a sniper rifle half a mile away. From the other side of the armored car, Derek heard a pained scream that was cut short, and he turned just in time to see Able falling to the ground. Another of the cyborgs, marked by his emotionless expression, began to raise a hand in Derek’s direction before his head exploded as well. This time there was no spray of blood or shrapnel, just a blossom of pure metal that froze when it was a meter wide. The thing – not a cyborg, something else – began to mend itself on the spot, and Derek ran inside the building after Bison.

“We have to move,” said Bison. He was standing over two bodies, both very human in the way they’d bled out on the linoleum. The sound of gunfire echoed over the hills outside.

They knew it was the right building, but had no idea where they’d be able to hook in. They stalked through the halls, almost at a run despite how weighed down they were with gear, killing everyone they saw. Twice they came across terminators, but both had been unarmed and dressed as researchers. They were nothing like the monstrosity that Derek had seen outside, and two full clips of SMG fire apiece were more than enough to kill them both.

They entered into a warm room with large black towers stationed several feet apart from each other, more than twenty in all, and Derek let out a sigh of relief. He started drawing out the cables, as well as their backup drive from the pockets of his vest while Bison stood guard at the only entrance to the room. He’d looked away for a moment, but when he looked back, a shaft of silver metal was stuck straight through the wall and piercing Bison’s chest.

Bison let out a wet, choking cough and began to spray the wall with bullets, heedless of the damage he might cause to the computers around him. A second spear came through the wall at incredible speed, this one piercing him through the head. Both retracted afterwards, and Bison slumped to the ground. Derek was torn between turning to face the threat and trying to get their Skynet upgrade going, and he ultimately chose the upgrade, fumbling through and trying to find the right place to plug in. Even if he did, there was no guarantee that it would work, it was really the sort of thing that Able should have been doing.

He felt cold steel on the back of his head, and grabbed for his pistol. As he brought it up and around, a tendril of silvery liquid metal wrapped around his wrist, forcing him into a struggle of strength, one that he could almost win, if only for a short while. He turned the pistol not towards the metal creature that masked itself as a man, but instead pointed it at his own head. There was only one reason that terminators captured people, and he couldn’t risk violating opsec. He pulled the trigger and ended his life.

Sunny chambered another round as the second armored car came barreling down the road, closely following the first. She’d hit the guy straight in the head, and it had mushroomed out before the explosion of metal had twisted around and begun to collapse in on itself. She watched carefully through the scope as the man’s head reformed, and fired a second round at him right in center mass. It blew a hole in his chest, and even splattered silvery metal on the wall behind him, but he began to repair from that too.

“Secret weapon A is a new form of terminator,” she said calmly into her radio, “Appears to not have any weak points, heals from wounds rapidly, and ah, can arbitrarily reshape its body into blades or other instruments. Suspect nanotechnology.” She said the last as the terminator loped towards the armored car with a sword where either forearm should have been. It leaped through the air and landed on the hood of the car, and was met by a solid slug shotgun blast that separated it in two parts. The bottom half melted into a pool and swam across the ground to the top half, which had formed six small crab legs to walk around on. The team poured out of the armored car, decked out in armor and weaponry, as the terminators swarmed from all over the campus. It was all over in a handful of seconds.

Back in the future, when she wasn’t in the middle of the panic and thrill of combat, Sunny had often wondered why it was that the terminators were so bad at using guns. She’d seen one of the fleshless ones, nothing but a metal endoskeleton, trying to mow down a group of resistance fighters with a minigun, tearing up abandoned cars and shattering what little glass was left in the windows. It had hit nothing. Sunny was a sniper, she knew practically everything that went into getting a bullet from the chamber to its target. It was all a matter of angle, power, wind, humidity, bullet drop, leading the target, and other simple things that added up into something that you needed intuition to correct for because it was all just too complex for a person to actually work out when they were thinking about it. But the machines should have been good at it. Calculating artillery tables had been one of the first things that computers had ever been used for, and if you could get all of the code in place to mimic a human voice and identify peoples faces, surely Newtonian physics couldn’t be that hard. The machines didn’t even have to worry about their breathing or their heartbeat.

And the truth was, they could shoot perfectly, they just chose not to most of the time.

“Terminators exhibit perfect aim,” Sunny said into her radio. “All six members of Team Bravo are down,” she added as she looked at the bodies. Six members of her family, six pretty little headshots. “We’re fucked here,” she added. Terminators were already racing towards them at a dead sprint. “Highly improbable that Derek and Bison completed the mission. Team Alpha signing off.”

Oscar set to work destroying the radio, which had been equipped with cryptology that they hoped Skynet wouldn’t be able to reverse engineer. It was possible that they had recorded the broadcast, and it was always better to have the enemy not know what you knew about them. After it had been smashed, he doused it with gasoline from a small flask and set the thing on fire.

Reed finished prepping the explosives when the first of the machines was a hundred meters away. “Commencing divine wind,” said Sunny, though there was no radio to carry her words. The three humans looked at them, and when the first of the terminators was within the kill radius, they pressed the detonator as one.

Sarah Connor stared at the radio.

“Just like that?” she asked. “All our work, all that planning, gone in the span of minutes?”

“It’s your first time losing someone under your command,” said Kyle. “I’ll be here for you. It doesn’t sound like they gave away our position though, and even if someone was captured it will be a few days before they break from the torture -“

“Not helping,” said Sarah. She clenched her hands into tight balls. “Not helping one fucking bit.”

“Sorry,” said Kyle. He placed a hand on her back, and when she didn’t try to move away he tried his best to comfort her. She cried silently for awhile, and Kyle never left her side.

“Okay,” said Sarah, a half hour later.

“Okay?” asked Kyle.

Sarah looked at the notes that Kyle had taken from what had been said over the radio, and began to read them. “We have to commit these to memory and then burn the pages,” said Sarah. “I’ve already got the time and space coordinates for the no go locked away in my memory palace, and we’ve got a plethora of drives stashed around here, as well as the instructions that I wrote myself for how to survive Judgment Day and what comes after.”

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“Fuck me, but the plan was to keep on trying the assault until we get it right, and by god that’s what we’re going to do.” There was a hard edge in her eyes that brooked no argument.

Sarah woke up in Kyle’s arms and reluctantly slid out of them. It was daylight out, and she had said four hours, which meant the go/no go would be coming in anytime, if it hadn’t already. She prodded Kyle awake and kissed him on the forehead, and together they walked down the hallway and into the kitchen, where the smell of bacon was thick in the air. As soon as the rest of the family could see them, there was a chorus of hoots and hollers. Kyle blushed, but Sarah managed not to, and only gave them the stern look that she remembered her mother giving her. That seemed to shut them up. Sarah glanced at the clock and saw that it was 9:42.

“Where are we on the go/no go?” she asked. “I seem to have overslept.”

“We didn’t get one,” said Able, who was scrambling an enormous amount of eggs.

“When was it supposed to come in?” asked Sarah.

“That’s your thing,” said Able. “When was it?”

“Awhile ago,” said Sarah. “Though I don’t remember exactly.” She yawned and stretched.

“So just make it come now,” said Kyle. He was sticking close to her, like a puppy, and she found that she liked it, even if it probably wasn’t intentional on his part.

“That’s not how it works,” said Sarah. “You can’t just miss the time that you set for yourself and move the time back, because if you did that you’d never end up getting the message, or you’d get it half an hour before you were about to leave to send it.”

“But you said yourself that you don’t know exactly when it was supposed to come,” said Kyle.

“I need coffee,” declared Sarah. “But yes, I did say that. Alright, fine, just this once, I’ll set back the deadline. The go/no go should come in,” she looked at the clock, then snapped her fingers, “Now.”

Nothing happened. Sarah sighed as one of the family poured her a cup of coffee, and Kyle had a disappointed look on his face.

From out in the yard, there was a sound of crackling blue electricity, and a sphere of energy appeared, scorching the grass. Sarah was thankful that the house had once belonged to a criminal, who had wanted to keep his property obscured from others, or there might have been a panic from any neighbors that could see. When the sphere disappeared, three people were left behind, a young girl and two hulking men, all of whom were carrying heavy loads.

“No go,” said the girl.

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 13

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