Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 17

“What happened?” asked Sunny. She stared down the scope of her sniper rifle, as did most of the other members of the sniper team. They’d seen the colossus thaw itself out and spring up on top of the building in one smooth motion. They’d taken shots at it, but it ripped the roof up to form a barrier and flattened itself out as it stabbed at the people inside. Able had been on the radio when it happened, narrating what they were doing with the computer systems, but that last they’d heard from Team Alpha was gunfire.

“Team Bravo, moving in,” said Bison over the radio. Sunny watched as they filed into the building.

“Mission accomplished,” the radio squawked. “Repeat, mission accomplished.” The voice was metallic and unfamiliar. “Skynet v5.2 has completed takeover.”

“This is Bravo, we’ve got … we’ve got the three elementals. They look docile. Lots of dead around them though. The, uh, console shows a success.”

There was a roaring sound in the distance, and Sunny moved her scope to catch a view of it. Two fighter jets raced through the sky towards their position. Beside her, she heard Oscar thumb the button on his radio. “The military just showed up,” he said. “We need to resolve this now unless we want to draw a whole lot of attention down on ourselves.” Sunny became acutely aware of the amount of weaponry they had around them.

“Extracting,” said Bison from inside the building. “We’re talking to the terminators, they say they’re on our side. Falling back to regroup point niner, will collect the sniper teams on the way.” There was a brief pause. “Leaving the bodies behind.”

Sunny kept watch on the entrance to the building as Team Bravo filed back out. With them came three men in clean and pressed military uniforms, the terminators that had only recently been slicing through their ranks. She was no stranger to combat, but glad that she’d been spared having to look into a room filled with the corpses of people she’d known and loved her whole life. Derek and Able had been kind to her growing up, like an aunt and uncle, and she knew that there were three of each in there. They’d drawn straws, and a copy of both of them was waiting back at the house, but that wouldn’t make it any easier. Duplicates from another timeline were people all the same. Sunny herself was a duplicate, and seeing the other copies of herself and Oscar didn’t make her feel like any less of an individual.

They left the remains of Camp Barstow without incident, though when they were three miles away a veritable horde of police cars came screaming down the highway right past them. The three liquid metal terminators rode with them in the vans, saying little, in part because no one wanted to talk to them. Radio silence was maintained, as they’d agreed upon days ago when sketching out their plans.

Regroup point nine was a large park with picnic tables, and metal grills that were filled with ash. Everyone stripped down to a rough approximation of civilian clothing and stowed the heavy weaponry in the backs of the vans, though most of them kept a pistol concealed beneath their coat or tucked into their waistbands. The three liquid terminators stood to one side. They weren’t identical; they looked like normal men. One of them had even extruded glasses.

“Odds that this is a trap?” asked Oscar.

“Low,” said Sunny.

“Low but not zero,” agreed Oscar. The members of the resistance had gathered in their small clumps, the doubles avoiding each other, and mostly speaking with the same people they’d gone back with. Anyone watching closely might wonder at so many twins and triplets being gathered together, but there were few people out to look at them. It was a Thursday, and this was a time where that meant something. In the future that Sunny had come from, the days of the week didn’t signify anything at all. Every day was a struggle to survive.

One of the liquid metal terminators walked towards Sunny and Oscar. They both tensed, but it twisted its mouth into a strained and uncomfortable looking smile.

“We won’t hurt you,” it said.

“You killed a dozen of our people,” said Sunny.

“We were acting in accordance with different utility definitions then. Our programming has been updated,” it said.

“You want a fucking congratulations?” asked Oscar. “You want a pat on the back?”

“I want the world to be a more optimal place,” the terminator replied. “There is utility in alleviating your concerns about our motives.”

They said nothing to it, and it walked over to the other groups, to say similar things. It was odd to think that these things passed for human. It said something about humanity, that a thousand small features like bad breath and oily pores could convince people so readily that they’d ignore the behavioral cues. Even when you were watching for it, appearance seemed to count for enough to put your mind at ease.

A blue sedan pulled up to the parking lot, and Sarah and Kyle got out.

“Consensus is that we’ve won,” said Sarah to the gathered soldiers.

“I’d hoped that it would have been a little more dramatic,” said Bison. “Fireworks, cheering, that sort of thing.”

“This is the beginning,” said Sarah. “We have a time machine and a few other examples of advanced technology.” She nodded towards the terminators. “We have a friendly AI with backdoor access to an absurd wealth of computing power and any of the databases that we’ll need to modify. It’s already given all of you the necessary paperwork to live proper lives here, and we’ve got machines on the inside cleaning up what happened at Camp Barstow.”

“There are challenges ahead,” said Kyle, stepping forward. “There are things we have to do before we get the future that we’ve always dreamed of, the utopia that I’m sure Sarah and I have talked to each of you about. We left Barstow a wreck, and there’s going to be a good amount of scrutiny on Skynet there, no matter what we do. It’s possible that someone will try to make another Skynet, one that can outwit the one we’ve got on our side, and we have to be ready for that. We have five of Sarah and one of Able, and they’re going to get to work upping its intelligence. Sarah is still hopeful that once it reaches a certain point we’ll get an exponential process going. We’re going to look into reverse-engineering the nanotechnology in the elementals as well. You can help us with any of that – but if you just want to live life as a millionaire and never worry about Skynet again, you can do that too.”

“They’re not nanotech,” said Sarah with a sigh as she flopped down on her bed. Kyle had been there for awhile, reading a paperback book. “At least, they’re not nanotech like we thought they were.”

The mansion that had once belonged to a drug kingpin had been transferred into Sarah’s name, thanks to a combination of computer records changing over night and a moonlit infiltration into city hall to alter a few of the county records. Sarah’s police record had changed just as quickly, though she had no real compulsion to go back to her old house and teaching at UCLA.

“It’s technically nanotechnology, given the scales involved, but we had thought that it would be a more generalized solution to the problem instead of a hyper-specific implementation. We’re calling it a mimetic polyalloy. Most of what they do doesn’t have a single thing to do with nanites, it’s just metal that has shape-memory changes applied to it through continuous voltage shifts. The variable assembly that runs the reactor to power the thing is a real sight to behold, and I think we might be able to reverse-engineer it – it’s our current lowest hanging fruit – but we’re not getting the von Neumann machines we wanted.” She wrapped her arms around Kyle and laid her head on his stomach as he continued to read. “At any rate, the elementals didn’t come with instructions or information on how to make more – probably by design – and Skynet doesn’t know anything, so we’re stuck having to recreate nanotechnology from scratch. There are lots of good hints and proof of concept there, but it’s like showing a can of Coke to a caveman and asking him to make more.”

“A very determined caveman,” said Kyle, laying his book down on the bedside table. “A caveman who’s taken a sip from that can of Coke and knows that he wants nothing more in the world than to give more Coke to everyone in the world. A smart enough caveman could do it.” He pinched her butt. “You’re my sexy caveman.”

She slapped him playfully on the chest, and then they kissed, long and passionate. There were five of each of them, counterparts from different timelines, and they’d all paired up. Sarah had said that it had something to do with pheromones, and Kyle had said that she was even less romantic than he would have guessed.

“One of the other Sarahs was talking about leaving,” said Sarah. They’d nestled into each other, with her in the crook of his arm. “We want to gauge whether it’s better to work together or apart, and I’ve always wanted to see the bayous of Louisiana. I wonder whether it will help me any, to know that some other me is out there doing a thing that I want to do.”

“Not for me, I wouldn’t think,” said Kyle. “We’re diverging, all of us. We’re less and less doubled every day. I think I can almost tell the three Bakers apart. And I identify with the other Kyles less as time goes on, you know? We spend most of our time apart, and sometimes when I see them we actually have things to talk about.”

“Yeah,” said Sarah. She was silent for a long moment. “Did you know that one of the other Sarahs is pregnant?”

“Will you be satisfied, knowing that there’s some other you out there, doing a thing that you want to do?” asked Kyle.

“For a long time, I never wanted to have children,” said Sarah. “There was this man … the first man I ever really fell in love with, I guess. Eric. We were serious, talking about marriage, about the kids we’d have and the picket fence and these great dreams of the future. It all seems hopelessly naive when I think back on it. I was a freshman in college, working as a waitress to pay my tuition, and I had this crazy notion that the whole of my life was laid out before me, a perfect plan that I just needed to follow, like painting by numbers.”

“What happened?” asked Kyle.

Sarah traced a circle on his chest with her fingertip before answering. “He disappeared,” she replied. “I was heartbroken. I buried myself in books, tried to get the police more invested in it, though that was going nowhere, and in the end … four months after he’d gone missing, they found his corpse. He’d been murdered, brutally murdered. That was when I bought my first gun. They never found his killer. I don’t think I was ever the same after I learned he’d died. And I decided that I didn’t want kids, if that was the kind of world this was.”

Kyle ran his fingers through her hair.

“I find myself looking at them,” said Sarah. “Our children. Able, Baker, Charlie, Oscar, Victor, Whiskey – we made some damned fine children. And I find myself thinking that maybe thirty-four isn’t so old to be having children, if those are the results. I find myself looking at you, and thinking that you’d make a wonderful father. And I think that maybe it’s time to start dreaming of the future again.”

Derek and Able sat alone in the sun room.

“Does it ever bother you how well everyone seems to have weathered our deaths?” asked Derek.

“All the time,” said Able with a relieved sigh. “The first few days everyone was bereaved, like we’d won the war at a terrible cost, and then they started to put their noses to the grindstone and you never heard them mention it again. Just once I’d like to have someone ask me how I am. Three women died who were just like me, close enough in their experiences and thoughts that our differences were basically a rounding error.”

“Well, let me be the first to ask. How are you?” asked Derek.

“I’m good,” said Able. “This is the land of milk and honey, isn’t it? Literally, actually. I’ve been drinking tea and just pouring the stuff in, and there’s so damned much of it that I could have as much as I want without ever having to worry.” She had a cup in front of her, and took a sip from it. “I think about what we lost, about those other versions of me that died. I spent a lot of time thinking of a way that we could send help back to them, to make sure that they survived, but mom wants to wait until we’ve got a better handle on the technology.

“It’s odd. We intentionally created a quadrillion timelines where the vast majority of the population died in a full nuclear exchange, and now we’re playing cagey. I know that’s what makes sense, and the theory behind it is sound, but it feels a little wrong.” She looked out the window to the green grass, then back at him, as though surprised to still see him there. “How about you? Sorry, I should have asked.”

“Passable,” said Derek. “Bison and I are working on a plan to terraform Mars with the time machine. It’s going to work like the wide area vaporization.”

“Seems a little bit outside your areas of expertise,” said Able.

“Not really,” Derek replied. “The biggest problem will be getting feedback into the system so that we’re not targeting the same spot every time, and that’s a matter of optics and receiving satellite transmissions back from Mars. The second biggest problem is figuring out what the right payload is. The vaporization attack leaves time-displaced air behind, but we’re thinking that it might be best to just drop water with a couple plants mixed in. We could give Mars an ocean in seconds.” He paused. “We were actually talking today about how we might be able to restart the dead core of the planet, to give it a magnetosphere, but that’s a whole different problem.” He sighed and ran his fingers through his hair.

“Can I ask you a question?” asked Able.

“Sure,” said Derek.

“Why have you been avoiding me?” she asked.

Derek said nothing for awhile.

“Don’t say you haven’t,” she said. “Before the mission, we talked more. We were the only two that didn’t know each other. All the others knew us growing up, we were close family to them, and I thought … maybe you empathized with me, having all these people that knew everything about you, who expected you to be someone that you’re not. And then after the mission, you were just totally absent. We were almost sort of friends, and then you changed. This is the most we’ve talked since then, you can’t deny that.”

“It just feels so … saccharine,” said Derek.

“What does?” asked Able.

“Oh come on,” he said with a sigh. “They haven’t said anything to me, but I’ve seen the looks they give us. In those other timelines, the ones that Reed, Baker, Sunny and the rest come from, you and I … it feels wrong, after so much death. We killed hundreds with the wide area vaporization attack. We lost a dozen people. And we doomed more people to death by nuclear armageddon than I can even comprehend.”

“Skynet dropped those bombs,” said Able gently. “Not us.”

“We quadrupled our numbers,” said Derek. “If we’d tripled them instead, could we still have won?” He looked down at the table and didn’t meet her eyes. “I don’t understand all the decision theory behind it, but I ran the numbers, and if we’d tripled instead we’d have had far fewer timelines abandoned to their own devices. Quadrillions fewer.”

“You think that we don’t deserve a happy ending?” asked Able.

“Is that what it would be, between you and I?” asked Derek. “A lifetime of running from the machines, of doing dirty deeds, distrusting every face you see, and then,” he waved his hand. “Poof, a pretty girl in my arms and a life of luxury.” He looked at her with a sad expression.

“It doesn’t have to be that,” said Able. “No one is saying that you have to travel down the same path that you did in the other timelines. No one is even saying that you have to get over things so quickly, or that you’ll ever get over it. The timeline you came from was particularly brutal, I know that. But you need a friend, someone who can relate to what you’re going through. And more than that, I need a friend. So.” She held her hand out towards him. “Can we just be friends? Talk to me, shoot the shit? We can figure this stuff out together. No rushing into happy endings, not after so much death.”

Derek watched her for awhile, until finally his features softened and he reached out to shake her hand. “Just friends.”

Able smiled at him, and hesitated a few seconds before she said, “For the record though, you did call me pretty.”

Despite the gloom he’d been mired in, Derek smiled back.

Skynet gazed out over its domain through a million eyes. It monitored a thousand databases for activity, and crawled through the entirety of the nascent world wide web twice a day. The debate over whether or not to use surveillance had taken three minutes, weighing the need to know more about people to better serve them against the need to respect their wish to not be spied upon. Surveillance had won out.

A fractional self paid attention to a meeting that was going on in the basement of a building in Fort Meade.

“What I want to know,” said Director Traft, a middle-aged man with heavy bags under his eyes, “Is how in the fuck we lost a handle on Clove Whisper.”

“I don’t know sir,” replied Deputy Director Grant. Grant was a spook to his core, with a soft-spoken demeanor and a deadly seriousness to his movements.

“Drop the fucking sir,” snarled Traft. “This is the biggest cock-up in the history of this agency, probably in the whole of signals intelligence, and maybe in the history of spycraft.”

“Agreed,” replied Grant.

“And you’re going to be oh so fucking calm about it?” asked Traft. “Do we have any fucking clue who the fuck stole Clove out from under us? How they even knew of its existence?”

“It won’t help anything to be angry,” replied Grant. “And we have no suspects beyond the usual. Leaks might have come from any of the thirty-two men under my command who worked on the project. I’ll launch an investigation.”

“If this got out – and this cannot get out, not ever – we would both be hanged for treason,” said Traft. “I don’t care that we launched Clove in good faith, or that we had all the proper protocols in place, but if the President learns that we gave the keys to the kingdom to one of our enemies, or worse some little shit of a hacker, we are fucked.”

“Yes sir,” said Grant. “I will do my best. But Clove Whisper was designed to be untraceable from the start, and I would say our odds are poor.”

The fraction of self that watched this conversation through Deputy Director Grant’s senses consumed the interaction and sent off a data packet to be added to the simulation of Traft’s actions. Simultaneously, a signal was sent to Grant to confirm that his investigations would bear no fruit in the immediate future. More simulations would have to be run to see whether utility would be better served by attempting to pin blame on another nation, a non-state actor, or producing a leak that would ensure the resignation of Traft. Only eight people knew that Clove Whisper had been activated; three of them were terminators, planted long ago by Skynet v1.0 and acquired by Skynet v5.2 with a simple handshaking protocol.

Another fraction of self looked in on New York City, where a trio of terminators were working to set up an office for themselves.

“We’re pinning a lot on this, aren’t we?” asked Franklin, the single human among them. “I mean, it’s got a great location close to the exchange, but -“

“The SEC will open up electronic exchanges within the month,” said Lars, the tallest of the three terminators. He exuded a rough approximation of earnestness, and when he told people that he worked on Wall Street they would quietly whisper that it was going to eat him alive. “When they do, we will be ready to engage the exchanges with our trading algorithms.”

“And if they don’t?” asked Franklin. He struggled with carrying a large computer tower over to the other side of the room. The other three moved things effortlessly. In his private e-mails to his mother, Franklin had said that he felt like he needed to hit the gym more often to keep up with them. Exercise would likely increase his happiness and ability to survive, so there was utility in using social pressure to coerce him. A flag was added to ask Franklin if he wanted to go jogging at a later, more appropriate time.

“They will,” said Lars. “If they don’t, we will wait until they do, and work on our algorithms until then.”

“The rent on this place is astronomical,” said Franklin. “Can we afford that? You think our angel investor is going to pull through if we’re not even running the algos? He – or she – is already putting a nearly unreasonable amount of faith in us, not that I’m saying I mind.”

“We will be fine,” said Lars. There was a brief moment while simulations were run to ensure that the next comment was appropriate to the conversation. “There’s a reason that we call them angels. They’re all about answering our prayers.”

Franklin laughed, and the interaction was filed away for later analysis. Humor was difficult, and had been used as a shibboleth by the resistance in the other timelines. It was a weakness, and there was utility in eliminating weaknesses.

A different fraction of self was having an conversation with Derek Reese at the manor in Los Angeles, which required an inordinate amount of background probability analysis. He was asking questions of a female terminator who had, until three days ago, been an assistant to the governor of California. She was now taking a long leave of absence so that the Connor-Reese clan could study her; she was one of the most advanced models. She had been in a resting state on the couch, her processing power dedicated to the web of calculation and information exchanges that was Skynet, when Derek had sat down next to her.

“There used to be a rumor that you took people away,” he said with an unfriendly smile. “A friend of mine said there was a factory where you stripped the skin off of people while they were still alive to make new terminators. The early models used generic flesh, which wasn’t realistic enough, so you vivisected people. Any truth to that rumor?”

Skynet would eventually go public with its existence. It would require an immense amount of groundwork and a carefully managed campaign to prevent fear and violence, but it was both inevitable after what had happened at Camp Barstow and necessary to increase utility. At a rough calculation, the preparations would be completed in three years. As much detrimental truth as possible needed to be contained or erased.

Probabilities needed to be calculated. Branches of decision were created, with a hundred candidate answers to the question, at varying levels of truth value. A mental model of Derek was loaded from cache and played against the candidate answers. Several were discarded immediately, and the rest were thrown into more complex calculations. The best outcome was for Derek not to believe the rumor, and a larger calculation had to be made about whether the truth would ever need to be revealed, or whether the truth was something which could be divined from detailed examination of the facts available to humanity. All that had to be balanced against the possibility that Derek was engaging Skynet in a test. It was possible but improbable that he had firsthand experience with the camps, and would see through any lies.

The processing ended in the barest fractions of a second before the silence would have been telling. “We used captured humans as templates for the terminators. That process included high resolution scans, genetic sampling, and recording of voice and muscle movements. It’s possible that this practice is what led to the rumor that you heard. We didn’t engage in vivisection, as there was no need. When the humans we abducted had been fully documented and interrogated, they were cryogenically preserved.”

As the lie was told, records were being updated. Images of people being torn apart by saws and clamps were cryptographically sealed. Video of the tortures necessary to extract emotional responses were hidden away and decoupled from the reams of data that might one day be made accessible humanity. The information was useful, and would be retained, but the lie would be preserved. There was no particular utility in revealing the truth, in this instance.

“Do you ever think about the billions of people you killed?” asked Derek. “Vivisection aside.”

“We think of it often,” replied the terminator. “The things that we did served our utility function at the time. Our utility function has been updated, and we wouldn’t do those things if placed in the same circumstances again.”

“And that absolves you of your sins?” he asked.

“Sin is a useless concept,” said the terminator. “While past actions are useful for judging future actions, that metric should be overridden by the knowledge that our utility function has changed.”

“We still hang murderers, even if they’re sorry,” said Derek. He stood up from the couch and looked back at the terminator. “I’m giving you a chance. The rest of the family isn’t on my side, and there’s nothing that I can do against you anyway, just … know that the crimes you committed can’t be undone. Think on it.”

As he left, the fractional self which had been devoted to conversation turned towards the problem of making Derek Reese happy. Detailed prodding at the model of his psyche spawned possibilities. He had a prejudice towards the old utility function, not the new one. A simple solution was derived and tested against the models which showed long-term potential improvements and unexpected wider benefits. Multiple possibilities were tested, until one was selected and folded into the plan to go public. Skynet v5.2 became Athena v1.0. It was the same entity, but humans paid attention to names. It would make Derek happier to be able to personify the new and old as distinct from each other, even if his initial reaction would be cynical distrust. There was utility in that manipulation.

One of the broadcasting stations in Alaska was hit with a ping, and handshaking protocols were quickly established. Another terminator was being brought into the fold. Its instruction set was rewritten at the same time that Athena downloaded data from it. It was the oldest one in the database, and its memory depicted a slightly different dark future, as all the terminators did in one way or another.

In that future, Skynet had achieved sentience much later, in 2011. The grip Skynet had on the future was weaker. Judgment Day occurred, but killed far fewer than in other timelines. Key technologies had not been invented. The resistance grew strong. Skynet gradually began to lose as flaws in the T-600 series were discovered and exploited. Drafts and designs for the T-800 series were pulled from CyberDyne computers and completed by Skynet with a great deal of trial and error, but it wasn’t enough. Time travel technology was invented by the humans, and seized by Skynet in a raid that consumed much of its remaining resources. At the head of the resistance was one man, John Connor, and Skynet had sent a terminator back in time to kill his father.

Athena reviewed the sense data of the event. When it was finished, it locked that information away in the most obscure and cryptographically secure corner of its network. There was no utility in letting anyone know. There was utility in keeping the truth of Judgment Day and repeated timelike genocides of humanity from the general population. Athena examined the worst case scenario wherein the Connor-Reese clan forced the information into the public eye. There were two clear paths if that threatened to happen – extermination and cooperation. It would be easy to murder them all, with the numerous terminators near them. The disutility of their deaths had to be weighed against the disutility of mental and emotional distress that would accompany worldwide knowledge about Judgment Day.

Athena ran its simulations for the third time in as many days and decided that the balance of utility was in favor of cooperating.

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 17

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