Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 2

“So, tell me about this crazy cyborg that might be coming to kill me,” said Sarah Connor. She allowed herself some flippancy, just to let him know that she didn’t really believe him. At worst … well, at worst he was going to try to rape and kill her at the first opportunity. A more realistic worst case was that he was simply insane, and had looked up her name in a UCLA directory while trying to find someone to talk to about artificial intelligence. In the best case, he was probably just playing a prank on her. She was not terribly well liked among the wannabe computer millionaires she was forced to teach.

Her handgun sat in her lap, no longer aimed at him, but ready to be used at a moment’s notice, and in such a position that he could see it as the threat that it was. Kyle was handcuffed to a thick oak rocking chair, wearing some clothes that an ex-boyfriend had left behind some years ago. He was attractive, there was no doubt about that after seeing him without clothes, and Sarah made a mental note to correct for the halo effect. Just because a person was pretty didn’t mean that they were anything but pretty, no matter what your stupid brain might tell you.

“We call them terminators. They’re an infiltration unit, all purpose bots designed to mix in with human society. They’re close to human on the outside, hard to distinguish without cutting into flesh, and even then it’s hard to tell. Once you get down to where the bone should be it’s all hard metal. They’re absurdly strong.” He shifted uncomfortably in the chair and glanced at the door and windows. “Before you say it, they weigh the same as a normal person. There are personality quirks that you can ferret out, but by the time you get to that point you’ve already let the thing into your house and it’s game over.”

“And how do I know that you’re not a terminator?” asked Sarah Connor.

Kyle froze and said nothing. Perhaps he was thinking about how poor his choice of words was, or that maybe she was a terminator in disguise, ready to kill him. The whole thing reeked of paranoia to begin with, but realistic looking cyborgs designed to infiltrate society took the cake. Sarah quietly adjusted her confidence levels.

“Any test that you could give me to test you would be suspect. I think that for now I’ll have to assume that you’re not a cyborg, since if you were there would be nothing that I could do about it.” She shrugged. “Do bullets work on them?”

“Yes,” said Kyle. “But you need a large caliber, or a lot of them, preferably both.”

“Alright, we’ll work that out later.”

They sat on opposite sides of Sarah’s untidy living room. Behind her was a desk with three monitors on it, a thick looking computer to one side, and a mini-fridge beneath. Without taking her eyes off him for more than half a second, she grabbed out a cold can of Mt. Dew and cracked it open. “Why me? What does it want from me? More to the point, what do you want from me?”

“It’s complicated,” said Kyle.

“But it’s not just about my area of expertise,” she said.


“Well,” said Sarah. “Start at the beginning.”

“The terminator could look in a phonebook and find your house. It’s not safe here.” There was that touch of paranoia again, being used like a weapon to try to force her into doing what he wanted.

“Then I guess we’re both going to die because you couldn’t talk fast enough.”

She saw a glimmer of hope in his eyes. “There was a war. A nuclear war, started by the machines. By Skynet.”

“Skynet, a computer program that’s on this device?” she asked, holding up the slender drive. It was as thick as a finger, with a shiny black cap at the end which concealed the USB connector. She’d thought for a moment about asking him why they still used USB in the future, but of course he would probably say that this particular stick was specially designed for use in the past.

“It was a military research program, meant to aid in control of the armed forces. They set up a neural net and -“

“And they got their utility functions wrong,” finished Sarah. “And then they plugged it into the wrong place, and it exploded out like a ravenous mongoose kept in a tight cage for a week.”

“How did you know that?” asked Kyle.

“Well, I’ve got a PhD in computer science and specialize in the field of machine intelligence. Give me a little bit of credit. But a simple neural net shouldn’t have been enough, the processing power needed to run something like that at remotely decent speeds would be … well, it would be staggering. Even with military funding.” She’d run the numbers more than a few times. To do it properly, you’d have to wait at least a dozen years.

“Unless you had computers from the future,” said Kyle. “Haven’t you heard the whispers? That technology is progressing faster than Moore’s law predicts?”

If he was delusional, he was also well-informed. Not three hours before he’d knocked on her door she’d read a paper on just that. The rate wasn’t one doubling per eighteen months anymore, it was one doubling per six months. There weren’t that many data points, and it seemed more like a brief fluctuation in the level of breakthroughs, as one might suspect would happen, but all the same … “Someone is reverse engineering computers from the future?” she asked slowly.

“Yes, this timeline shows significant evidence of tampering from -“

There was a loud knock at the door. Sarah looked to the covered windows, which were just letting in the first crack of morning sunlight.

“Don’t answer it,” said Kyle with deadly seriousness.

“Sarah?” came a worried woman’s voice from beyond the door.

Sarah sighed in relief. “It’s just my neighbor. She comes to check on me in the mornings sometimes, or to grab a cup of coffee,” she said. “Hold on a second.” She got up from her chair and set the handgun on her desk, with only a brief glance to Kyle to make sure that it was still out of reach.

“Sarah, do not open that door. Don’t answer, don’t speak, just … just let me go, hand me the gun, and I’ll deal with it.” He was visibly tense. “Please, if there’s even a small chance that I’m right, it’s better to play it safe and just pretend we’re not here.”

“We call that Pascal’s Mugging,” replied Sarah as she opened the door. “You hypothesize some extremely terrible but remote future possibility -“

In front of her stood a tall man in a black leather jacket. He wore black sunglasses, even though the sun was barely out. His hair was cropped short and clean. There was no trace of humor on his face. They stood looking at each other for half a second, and then his hand shot out towards her throat.

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 2

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