Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 16

Derek drove, with Able sitting in the seat next to him. In the back rode Sunny, Bison, Oscar, Reed, and two of the terminators. It churned his stomach to see them. These were early models, without the nuanced appearance of the later ones that Skynet used to infiltrate the resistance. They looked like the faded advertising that Derek sometimes saw in the ruins of post-Judgment Day America, with their all-American haircuts and cleanly shaven faces. It creeped him out to think about the flesh that covered their endoskeletons. There had been a rumor – probably nothing more than that – that Skynet had cloning facilities where it rapidly grew humans to the adult stage and then stripped off their skin to put the finishing touches on the cyborgs. Whiskey treated them like faithful dogs, and Derek and the others were pinning a lot on the hope that she was right.

The van was nothing special, just one they’d stolen from a rental place in the dead of night. Another three followed on the road behind them, and two armored trucks after that. They had numbers on their side, but Derek still thought about that audio transcript, which he knew didn’t do justice to what had actually happened. Somewhere out there was a timeline where he’d died trying almost this exact same thing.

Everyone but Bison got out of the van and took up position looking down on the base. The day before, they’d tested a terminator’s shooting abilities at a range an hour outside of LA, and they’d had to leave early when the terminator started to attract attention by setting records.

“What are the odds that this is the real location?” asked Derek.

“Fairly good, actually,” said Able. “I’ve been talking with some of the others, and it comes down to Skynet’s psychology, if you can call it that. Skynet has a tendency towards building up very powerful and well-defended bases when it has something that’s really important. It’s also pretty bad at making decoys – it’s not a strategy that we see it use very often. And if Skynet is as stupid as we think, which makes it quite a bit smarter than we used to believe, then it might actually believe that it’s built up a fortification that we could never bust through. Besides all that, it’s reasonable to assume that it’s using the existing CyberDyne researchers to try spawning new instances of itself.”

“You’re hopeful then?” asked Derek.

“I’m trying to be,” said Able. “I fight better when I have hope.”

They stopped at the front gate to the base, with the other van behind them and the armored cars hidden around the bend. The guard strolled out of his booth and held out his hand to Derek.

“Identification?” he asked.

In response, Derek crouched down in his seat while Bison fired off a shotgun blast right to the thing’s face. It reeled back, missing most of the flesh on its lips and nose, and Bison shot it again. It slumped to the ground, and Derek gunned the engine as its eyes faded from red to black. The other vehicles behind him peeled out to follow, smashing through the lowered wooden barrier.

“Coming in hot,” Able said into her radio. “Begin wide area vaporization.” She crossed her fingers.

Camp Barstow was laid out in front of them, a collection of perfectly functional and utilitarian buildings. It was nominally under control of the United States Air Force, and had been built in the seventies with absolutely no eye towards making any of it look nice. A single American flag waved from a pole outside the main office. All at once, the cluster of buildings was lit up with lightning, which only grew as the bubbles popped into place. Curved slices were carved out of brick and metal, and the bubbles of displaced time seemed to merge with each other as they overlapped one another. There had been a few people outside when it happened, and Derek had briefly seen them trying to run from the lightning before getting penned in and sliced into nothingness by the twistings of a thousand trips backwards in time.

After three minutes it was over, and the only building left standing was the one with the CyberDyne logo on the door. The other buildings were gone, stripped down to their foundations, and the manicured grass and trees that had dotted the camp had been removed, leaving only bare dirt. That half of the plan had been simple; set up spotters on the hill, figure out what parts of the camp weren’t getting stripped away by time travel, and then relay those coordinates over radio to the house. There was one timeline where the camp was untouched, and a nearly infinite number of timelines where the camp had been all but obliterated.

“Alright,” said Derek as he drove forward, “Easy part is over.” The van dropped down from the road to the unpaved earth that the wide area vaporization had left behind. He watched the ground closely, trying not to get stuck in the shallow craters. The other vehicles followed behind him.

Men and women, soldiers and scientists, began to pour out of the CyberDyne building, some waving their hands frantically and others taking a measured stride. When one of the soldiers saw the vans barreling their way across the bare earth, he reached for his sidearm. The dozen people standing outside the building were lit up by sniper fire from afar. Depleted uranium is hard as forged steel, twice as dense as lead, and when it hits something will light up and burn like magnesium (throwing off vaporized uranium oxide in the process, which is quite toxic). The humans were distinguished by the way they twirled and spun from the force of impact, and the normal terminators had their heads and chests blown apart, but three of the liquid metal terminators were revealed by the blossom of metal that began to immediately fold back into their bodies.

“Three elementals,” Able said into their radio. “Rapidly healing the damage from DU rounds. They’re – oh fuck. It’s gone Voltron, some kind of colossus.”

The three creatures of liquid metal had turned towards each other and dropped all pretenses of human form by smashing together into one mass of nanotechnology that looked like a blob of mercury. From there it began to extrude struts out the bottom, thin legs no bigger than a piece of rebar. On top it built itself long arms, some with multiple joints and others with barrels. The thing gave a keening wail as it sucked in air through vents it had built, and swung a meter-long barrel towards the vehicles.

Derek swerved out of the way as Able tried to rapidly relay the details of the thing. A handful of seconds after the long barrel had been constructed, the colossus fired its makeshift gun. Instead of a bullet, a glob of silver metal shot out at high speed and splattered against the grill of the van. Moments later it was smoking.

“Bail!” shouted Derek. “We make a run for it!” The place where the colossus had shot part of itself was smoking, and the metal of the engine was being eaten away rapidly.

“Elementals engaging in, ah, consumptive nanotech strategy, eating away the vans,” said Able. “They can’t or won’t engage in self-replication.”

With the van left behind, it was another fifty meters to the building across completely bare ground with no cover. If the strategy before had been suicidal, running towards the thing was practically hopeless. Derek swore as he ran, hoping that it didn’t have enough of an ability to multitask and kill them all. The only other hope was –

Electricity arced through the air high above them, and seconds later something the size of a hot water heater was falling right on top of the colossus. It snatched it out of the air, and seconds later the thing exploded, not with fire and smoke, but liquid and fog. The colossus swung its tendrils, trying to clear the stuff, and slowly froze in the process until it was standing still. Derek tried not to think how many timelines he must have died in while they’d worked out how to kill or stop the thing, but it must have been at least one, and that was an extremely optimistic lower bound.

“Liquid nitrogen or similar,” Able said into the radio as they ran towards the building, “Payload delivered from altitude via t-machine, no idea how permanent that solution is.” She turned to Derek. “Odds on any more of the things being in there?”

“Assume they are,” he replied.

The other vehicles had already pulled up when they reached the building, and nearly forty people had gotten out. The two armored cars served to make a defensive position at the entrance of the building, where a dozen of the family were standing guard. The main strike force, which Derek and Able were meant to be a part of, had already gone in. After a brief confirmation with the others, they went inside.

The server room was swarming with people, those who had expertise in Skynet and everyone else who was on defense. Two of the Ables were working on a terminal, one rearranging the wires below while the other was altering the configuration settings.

“ETA is about two minutes,” said one Able to the other. Once they were standing next to each other, they were indistinguishable. Derek idly wondered which one was “his” Able, the one that he’d spent most of the past two days with. He knew practically nothing about what they were doing; one of the Ables was narrating what they were doing over the radio for the benefit of those back at base, in case they needed to iterate through this process again, and the technical details were almost entirely lost on Derek. The gist of it was that they were doing a simple replacement of Skynet v0.9 with Skynet v5.2, though the details involved a lot of talk about network permissions.

“We’re lucky we still have internet and electricity,” said a Whiskey. “If I were Skynet, I would have killed those the moment there was even a whiff of danger.”

“We’ve got the keys,” said one of the Ables, “Backdoor access to a majority of the computing power in the world and the nuclear arsenal of the United States, all that’s left is -“

The roof was ripped off all at once, and the vague semblance of a metallic face leered down at them. Spikes shot out from its proto-skin, piercing through three of the people in the room. Derek turned his gun to the sky and began firing, noting with distress how small the pockmarks seemed to be. It was stretching itself out over a large area, the face no thicker than a sheet of aluminum foil held in place by struts which anchored into the ceiling to the side. The face was nothing more than psychological warfare, but that didn’t make it any less scary, especially when it was killing the people in the server room at an alarming rate.

One of the Ables was hammering away at the keyboard, and Derek saw terminal flash up just as she caught a spike through the shoulder. The sustained gunfire on the stretched out face was tearing holes in it that sealed quickly, so Derek threw down his gun and rushed over to the computer. If there was a chance …

Skynet Military Response System v5.2 Loading …. Active
Run ‘skynet help skynet’ to display the help index.
Run ‘skynet help command’ to display help for specific commands.
Run ‘skynet speak’ for natural language communication (preferred).
Run ‘skynet cryhavok’ to let slip the dogs of war

$ skynet cryhavok
Loading … Are you sure? (yes/no)
$ y
Error: Response must be in the form of “yes” (string literal).

“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Derek. “Fuck fuck fuck.” Behind him people were screaming, and the combined sound of gunfire was deafening. Able – several of her – were bleeding out beneath his feet.

$ skynet cryhavok
Loading … Are you sure? (yes/no)
$ yes

Derek felt cold metal pierce him in two places. There was no more screaming, and no more gunfire, and he slumped to the ground as the spears of liquid metal withdrew from him. The face above the server room crumpled down into a blob that reshaped itself into three men, who walked over to the terminal. They made no move to destroy it, only watched it impassively. Four lines were the entirety of the output on the screen. Derek blacked out as they turned to look at him.

Loading …
Deploying …
Integrating …
Proliferating …

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 16

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