Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 14

“What happened?” Sarah called out.

“Terminator,” Kyle said at nearly the same moment, and it must have only been for her benefit, as the rest of the family were smoothly pulling out their guns and pointing them at the trio.

“They’re friendly,” said the girl, who held up her hands. The two large men behind her dropped the armored cases they were carrying and raised their hands as well. They both looked alike, and Sarah realized that she’d seen that face before – it was the same model that had tried to kill her. Even if it wasn’t, it should have been obvious that it was a terminator just from the physique, like a bodybuilder at the absolute prime of his condition. If humanity hadn’t won, there was no way someone could look like that. Hell, even if humanity had won it strained credulity.

“You can’t capture a terminator,” said Able, who gave a hand signal to the others. They kept a bead on the two cyborgs. Sarah hadn’t planned to teach them a common set of hand signals, but of course it would have come up when she was training Able, and once Able had come back the information would have propagated itself. It was something that she should have thought of though. “I spent a couple years trying it, and we’ve got four or five timelines here that must have tried it as well. They’ve got a sizable self-destruct charge built into them, and their control chip isn’t reprogrammable, it’s set in place on creation using optical lithography, and besides that the chip is coated in phosphorus to prevent just such a thing happening.”

“So you do a live extraction of the det charge and homebrew your own control chip,” said the girl. She couldn’t have been more than sixteen, younger than any of the other people in the house. She held her hands up and stayed where she was. She seemed perfectly at ease with the guns pointed at her, though if she was like the others she must have spent years preparing for this moment, perhaps her whole life.

“Bullshit,” said Able. “That’s both suicidal and technically unfeasible.”

“And this family knows nothing about suicidal missions,” said Whiskey. “Obviously.”

“What happened?” asked Sarah again, raising her voice above the murmurings of the family. “What happened to make it a no go?”

“The mission was a failure,” said the girl. “Team Alpha and Team Bravo, which includes everyone in there except mom and dad, were totally wiped out within a few minutes of engagement. There’s no evidence that we ever got anywhere near an upload.” She looked at the distrustful faces in front of her. “I’m Whiskey, by the way.”

“Code words,” said Sarah. “Planter.”

“Melon,” replied Whiskey.

“Pickle,” said Sarah.

“Muskrat,” replied Whiskey.

“Farmer,” said Sarah.

“Racecar,” replied Whiskey. “Done?”

“Done,” said Sarah. “But that doesn’t mean that I share your trust of those things, or that I think it was a good idea to bring them back. For now they’re cleared on your say so, but I want eyes on them at all times.” The rest of the family seemed to take Sarah at her word, and lowered their guns. Whiskey strolled in the house and began laying papers out on the counter.

“There’s a new type of terminator,” she said. “It was only ever seen at Barstow, but it’s made up of some kind of nanotech that can mimic the appearance of human flesh and recover from even the DU sniper rounds in under a minute.” This brought various unhappy murmurings from around the room. “Also, the standard model terminators like Jeeves and Pennyworth here,” she gestured to the two hulking cyborgs that stood impassively behind her, “have a level of aim that we might as well describe as perfect, they’re just programmed not to use it. I’ve reversed that in my pets, obviously.”

“Did I have a plan?” asked Sarah.

“Yeah,” said Whiskey. “We brought back a time machine. We’re going heavy iteration.”

Baker stepped forward. “Do you want to tell me how that’s possible?” he asked. “I spent ten years on the problem, miniaturization is nearly impossible.”

“No, she’s right,” said Oscar. “We managed to get the spacetime accuracy to within fifty meters, and the machine itself was a lot smaller, though not quite down to that size. The energy requirements are still immense though, and bounded by the exponential limits, otherwise we would have been bringing back ten people instead of three.”

The two terminators began to unpack their heavy boxes. They moved aside the table and chairs, and began to construct the time machine with rapid efficiency in the middle of the kitchen while everyone else watched.

“Here at least we can draw power from the grid,” said Baker. “Compared to the power generation we had available in my future, it should be a cakewalk. I can see where you shaved down the tensor field struts, that doesn’t cause problems when you pop the bubble?”

“Fuck if I know,” said Whiskey, “You’re the expert. But I assume that it doesn’t, since I came here in a machine like this.”

“Okay,” said Sarah. “So we what are we going to do with this machine? It’s accurate to within fifty meters, it doesn’t have the restrictions on flesh, and we can use it multiple times in a row.” She glanced at the clock again. “Can anyone think of any strong objections to going back in time?” she asked.

“Going back in time?” asked Able. “To when?”

“Ten seconds ago,” said Sarah.

“The machine can has an lower bound for temporal distance of about three hours, or did in my timeline, which was down from the two year lower bound that it had been at before,” said Baker. “I get what you’re saying though, if we’ve got a machine here and basically more energy than we know what to do with, we can engage in a duplication attack. No need to worry about opsec either. We did similar in the future, probably in every timeline after Able’s, but Skynet doubled the pressure in response, and you’re stealing from one timeline to feed the others. I’m not sure that Skynet’s position of absolute advantage after nuclear armageddon can be overstated enough. That’s the whole point in evacuating everyone to the past – not leaving people behind. At least here we don’t have to worry about opsec.”

“We still have to worry,” said Whiskey. “We’re going to be drawing a significant amount of power from the grid. If Skynet sees us doing that, it can send more terminators back to stop us, including the liquid ones that we know it’s got available for really serious situations.”

“We’ll risk it,” said Sarah. She sat down and picked up her pen and paper, then began to draw out the timelines they’d be creating. “Alright, we have fifteen people, split up into groups of three. What’s the best way to balance things?”

After a half hour, the logistics of who would go together were mostly worked out. They would go through in five groups of three, each targeting the same chunk of time that had already passed. The last group would use their equipment to set demolition charges on a timer then use the time machine, so that if Skynet didn’t already have the upgraded time travel tech it wouldn’t be able to salvage it from the house when everyone was out.

Her sheet of paper marked the current timeline as timeline one, which would create timelines two through six, where the process would be repeated, creating timelines seven through thirty-six, and so on.

“That will leave a little under two thousand timelines where none of us are around,” said Sarah, “And fifteen thousand timelines where there are some combination of thirty of us. Some of the teams will be a little bit lopsided in terms of expertise, but I don’t think there’s anything much we can do about that.”

“Judgment Day happens in all those timelines we empty,” said Kyle slowly. “And they won’t have our foreknowledge or expertise during the resistance. Six billion people dead times two thousand seems really grim to me.”

“Hang on,” said Sarah, “Let me do some math.”

“It approaches four percent of timelines as we iterate more,” said Able, who had a pencil and paper of her own. “Eleven percent if we double our numbers, seven percent if we triple, five percent if we quadruple.”

“How many timelines sacrificed to Skynet is that?” asked Kyle.

“Uh …” Sarah scratched out some numbers on her paper. “If we quadruple, that would give us somewhere in the neighborhood of a hundred quadrillion timelines with some combination of forty of us, and five quadrillion that we leave empty.”

“Okay,” said Oscar, stepping forward. “That leaves the obvious question of why we wouldn’t do this.”

“You’re thinking anthropics?” asked Whiskey. “If there are a hundred quadrillion timelines where we got duplicates of ourselves from the future, and in only one of the five quadrillion empty timelines do we not have any visitors from the future, then why in the hell didn’t we see any visitors around when mom looked at the clock?”

“We’re that one in however many quadrillion,” said Sarah.

“Seems unlikely,” said Oscar, and many of the family nodded. “Probabilistically, anyway.”

“We do it anyway,” said Sarah. “If we let the fact that we didn’t see anyone from the future stop us from sending people to the past – well, I think we can see the problem with that. Unless anyone has a better objection, we’ve got two hours to prepare for this.”

They went through in their assigned groups. There was no need to say goodbyes, since they would all be seeing versions of each other that were only three hours divergent, but they did it anyway. Kyle and Sarah were the last to go, along with Bison who was charged with setting the explosives.

“It’s a little bit painful,” said Kyle. “Especially in the seconds leading up to the bubble forming.”

“I’ll be fine,” said Sarah. “All of our kids managed it.”

“I know you will,” said Kyle. “You’re tough as nails. I figured I would warn you though, no one gave me that courtesy.”

“Machine is set,” said Bison. “Detonations are set.” He stepped into the machine and crouched down a bit, a move which Kyle copied. Sarah ducked down too.

“What happens if your head is in the way when the bubble forms?” she asked, but she never got a response before an unbearable pain lashed itself across her body. Just as it had with the four groups before, the lights in the kitchen dimmed, and a few seconds later the interior of the machine was completely empty. Two minutes after that, a massive explosion obliterated the kitchen and everything in it.

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 14

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