Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 3

Kyle grabbed her from behind and shoved her down, and the blonde man’s fingers closed on thin air. He took a half step forward, and then Kyle was in front of her, the gun in his hands, firing directly into the man’s skull, over and over. Sarah lay on the floor watching helplessly and trying to remember what she was supposed to do in situations like this. She could see the cyborg – yes, a cyborg, not a man at all – jerk his head back with each shot, flesh tearing away from his face, but it didn’t offer a reaction, or even stop moving forward.

Kyle was screaming, “Run!”, and so she ran, down the hallway and past all her worldly possessions, then out the patio door and into the morning sun. Kyle followed quickly behind her, running at a dead sprint with the flash drive in one hand and her gun in the other. The cyborg followed behind him with a slow, relentless stride. “Run!” Kyle kept yelling, and even though she regularly ran a couple of miles in the evenings, he quickly matched her pace without so much as breaking a sweat. They ran together until the machine was far behind them.

“Fuck,” said Sarah with a ragged breath. “The fucking fuck.”

“Save your breath,” replied Kyle.

The sun was up, but it was only early morning, and few people were on the street. Aside from the fact that they were both barefoot, they could almost have been two college students going for a morning jog. She was older than that, of course, but it hadn’t been so long ago that she’d finally gotten her doctorate. In the light of the rising sun, Kyle looked not much older than a teenager. He turned suddenly and cut across someone’s lawn, then opened the door of a car in the driveway. Sarah followed him. When she looked back behind her, the terminator walked out from behind one of the small suburban houses.

It’s face was red mush, save for two glowing eyes and small places where a gleam of metal stood out. It was real, a real machine under all the human flesh. She felt an irrational urge to study it, and choked out a laugh at the thought of laying it down on a psychiatrist’s couch. It didn’t walk very fast, but it walked as if there was no force on earth that could stop it. She heard the roar of an engine behind her, and Kyle erratically backed the car out of the driveway, flinging open the passenger door for her.

“Come with me if you want to live,” he said calmly. The terminator was only a hundred feet away, and Sarah didn’t need to be offered an escape more than once. Kyle had his foot on the gas before she even had her door closed, and they left the terminator far behind them, standing in the street. She watched in the rearview mirror as it stopped walking and stared at them. After a few moments had passed, it turned and began walking in a different direction.

She strapped on her seatbelt and turned to look at Kyle. He seemed calm, but his knuckles were tight on the steering wheel and they were going well in excess of the speed limit. Down by his feet was a pile of wires where he’d hotwired the car.

“It’s so slow,” said Sarah after a while.

“It will follow us,” replied Kyle. “Probably steal a car of its own.”

“I just kept expecting it to sprint at any moment, to run like a madman. They should be able to move faster than us, right?” she asked.

Kyle just shrugged. “Skynet is dumb as shit, if you’ll excuse the language. From what we can tell, its design decisions for the terminator model were just done by making a straight conversion from human to machine. If Skynet were smart, we wouldn’t be sitting here talking right now, because it would have wrapped one of its drones in a thin membrane of flesh and bombed your house from above.”

“Or better yet, sent back a corpse with ebola in it,” said Sarah.

“Yeah.” Kyle was silent for a moment. “Are you okay?”

“Just … tell me more about them.” said Sarah.

“You can’t believe how frustrating it is to fight that goddamn thing,” sighed Kyle. “Skynet’s the dumbest son of a bitch sometimes, but it’s dumb incredibly fast, and it never has to worry about depletions of manpower. It used the nukes right off the bat, which took care of most of us. If not for that, we might have been able to beat it, but -” Kyle slammed on the brakes and narrowly avoided missing a paperboy. “But instead we got the half a life of being the resistance against an overwhelming opponent.”

“Where are we going?” asked Sarah. They were moving into an unfamiliar part of town, out away from the sprawling campus of UCLA. Her heart was starting to slow down. If the cyborg was following them, there was no sign of it.

“I have no idea,” replied Kyle. “Last time I was in LA was in 2023, and it was irradiated all to hell. We stuck to the outskirts.” His eyes moved rapidly as he drove. She tried to imagine what he’d seen.

She’d been to the SF-88 site in Marin county with an old boyfriend during a weekend trip down to San Francisco. They’d look at the mocked up batteries of Nike missiles, designed to take down Russian bombers, and now a tourist attraction. Afterward, she’d gone to the library and looked up some of the pictures of nuclear aftermath, from Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a flash of light, ash silhouettes were blasted onto the sides of buildings. She looked at the buildings that they were passing. If a nuke hit LA, those would be all over the place.

“So then what’s our plan?” she asked.

“We need access to a computer, and we need to hide while you use it,” replied Kyle.

“Why do we need a computer?” she asked.

“You need to write a new utility function that we’re going to slip into Skynet.”

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 3

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