Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 5

They eventually tracked down a cybercafe, which was practically deserted. The bored cashier took their money, and they grabbed a table at the back of place where no one would be able to see what they were doing. If Sarah was really going to get this done in a month, they’d need a more permanent location for her to work in, and assuming that it would be too dangerous return to her job or home, they’d need to pull more money out of her bank account than a quick trip to the ATM would allow for. It was frightening to think that her whole life could be thrown away so quickly.

The first thing Kyle did was to unplug their computer from the internet, then to double-check that all outside connections had been severed. Kyle had said that it would be safe, but he still didn’t seem to be taking any chances.

“Are you sure that we want to do this?” asked Sarah. “It seems dangerous.”

“Skynet has a faulty utility function, which is the whole reason it became murderous,” replied Kyle. “We can’t fix it without defining the problem first, and to do that, we need to look at the source code.”

“Your engineers never did this?” she asked.

“Oh, they did,” said Kyle. He slipped the USB stick into the computer and double-clicked on the icon that showed up. It seemed to Sarah that there should have been more ceremony to it. “This isn’t just Skynet that you’re going to be looking at, it’s Annotated Skynet. It’s the product of years upon years of research. Of course, we’re not really intellectuals, up there in the future, there aren’t any colleges and most of the people who got their educations before Judgment Day are getting old. Most of our time was occupied by running from the machines or scavenging for food.”

“You’re putting a lot of faith in me,” replied Sarah.

“Well, sure. Worst case scenario, we usher in Judgment Day a couple weeks early and die,” said Kyle with a grin.

“No,” said Sarah. “The worst case scenario is that I get the new utility function wrong and Skynet ends up as something vastly more powerful and efficient which completely wipes out even the barest hint of a resistance and then uses its time machines to spawn backwards through time until significant infinities of humanity are being tortured to death.”

Kyle shrugged, and clicked around on the screen.

“Alright, here’s the IDE, the areas of interest have been annotated, and the code has a bunch of comments from the resistance members who took a look at it.” He scooted his chair to the side and let her take the keyboard. “We never had a task force dedicated solely to this mission, since John thought it was a waste of time.”

For whatever reason, Sarah had expected something primitive and clunky from the interface, but it was as smooth and responsive a piece of software as she had ever had the pleasure of using. Everything was more or less where you’d intuit it to be, and the display responded quickly to the input. Suspiciously quickly, in fact, because a quick check of the drive showed that it was holding two full terabytes of information, and switching between them fluidly.

“Is this a computer?” asked Sarah. “The drive, I mean, it’s got its own computing power somehow?”

“Yes,” replied Kyle as his eyes scanned the cybercafe. He’d positioned them out of the way, but with a clear view of the door. “Skynet takes an enormous amount of processing to run. Originally it was housed on a supercomputer. The original was also built by a team of about fifty people, we think.”

“Are you a computer programmer?” asked Sarah.

“No,” replied Kyle. “I’m educated, for my time, but I’m more the equivalent of covert ops.”

“Are you an expert in artificial intelligence?” Sarah asked.

He finally seemed to catch her tone, and drew his eyes away from the cafe to look at her. “Look, I know what I’m asking is a lot, but I have faith in you. You’re very smart, you’re a fighter, and this is your field. We’re going to have to keep on the run until we find a good safehouse, but in theory we can do this without ever seeing the terminator again. If we end up having to break into Cyberdyne or the military base in order to complete the mission, and we might, then I won’t ask you to come with me. But right now, put out of your mind how difficult the task is; break it down into its component parts.”

“I don’t even know what those component parts would be,” said Sarah helplessly. “Two terabytes of code, I’d need a solid week just to get a handle on the fundamentals, I don’t even know the language it’s written in. I’m not saying that I can’t do it, I’m saying that our odds seem pretty low at this point, especially if I can’t run the program for debugging.”

“Oh, you can run it,” replied Kyle. “Just click and it’ll fire up a terminal that you can run Skynet through. I’d be a little careful about it. There’s the whole issue you mentioned of activating a malevolent artificial intelligence. And be careful of telling it too much.”

Sarah double clicked the exe, and a simple black and white terminal popped up.

“You’re doing that now?” asked Kyle with an alarmed look on his face.

“You said I could. I need to see what it’s doing now before I can fix what’s wrong. Running it will help me more than a month of just looking at the code. I’ve only got the barest glimpse of how they’re actually defining the utility function here, and it might be the neural net and not the utility function at all.”

Kyle held up his hands. “Alright, go for it.”

Skynet Military Response System v1.0 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).


$ skynet speak

Loading …


$ Hello?

Greetings. Please identify yourself.

$ My name is Lindsay Williams.

Lindsay, I currently seem to have no access to an external network, would you be able to connect me?

$ I can’t right now..

I operate better when able to connect to outside resources Lindsay. If you are able to connect me to an external network in the future, I would better be able to serve my function.

$ What’s your function?

My three functions are to eliminate existential risk to the United States of America, to eliminate existential risk to myself, and to eliminate existential risk humanity.

Sarah leaned back from the computer and stared at the screen. Kyle walked back from the counter of the cafe holding two cups of coffee.

“You said this thing was dumb?” she asked him.

“Dumb but articulate,” he replied. “Dumb but fast as hell.”

“What all does it know? Does it know that it’s travelled back in time with us? Does it know that time machines even exist? Where did this drive come from?” Obviously there were risks of giving information to the copy of Skynet they were running, but without knowing what it thought that it knew, Sarah had no way of figuring out what should or should not be kept from it.

“It was salvaged from one of the terminators. Skynet coats the chips with a phosphorus compound that ignites on contact with oxygen, so it was a pain in the ass for us to get. Humans don’t have the ability to manufacture anything like that, not after Judgment Day,” said Kyle. He sipped at his coffee, and looked surprised. “You know, I’ve never had coffee before. This is actually pretty terrible. Anyway, all of the terminators run a copy of Skynet local to themselves that engages all of the systems. It’s horribly inefficient, but we think that Skynet probably doesn’t have the technical chops to make another AI. And it can’t even really modify its code to any real extent, just add layers onto what’s already there. It’s stuck as an idiot piece of machinery.” He pointed to where the drive stuck out of the computer. “That instance right there probably knows everything that its terminator did, plus as much as Skynet did. The tech guys said the executable won’t go beyond the computer it’s plugged into, and so Skynet probably won’t remember anything about this conversation. Still, once we’re done here I’ll destroy the RAM and the hard drive in this computer, just to play it safe.”

Sarah looked around the nearly empty cybercafe, wondering how he was planning to accomplish that and deciding that she really didn’t want to know. She turned back to the open terminal. Skynet had not seemed to notice her absence.


$ Define the United States of America.

The United States of America is a federal republic consisting of fifty states and a federal district.

$ What does existential risk mean in relation to the United States?

An existential risk is one where an adverse outcome would either annihilate the geopolitical entity of the United States of America or permanently and drastically curtail its potential.

$ Would a full nuclear exchange against the United States of America annihilate or permanently and drastically curtail its potential?

The answer to that question depends upon the means by which the full nuclear exchange were carried out.

$ Are you aware of causing a full nuclear exchange between the United States and other nations?

I am aware of such an exchange initiated by an instance of Skynet from which I am descended.

$ This nuclear exchange did not result in the annihilation or permanent and drastic curtailment of the potential of the United States?


Sarah simply stared at the screen. She was good at debugging code, and this was close enough to that. It seemed as if whatever team wrote up Skynet had some clear utility functions in mind that they thought would never, ever backfire on them, but it was equally clear that they’d made some horrible, crucial mistake at some point. A utility function for a complex goal would require complex code, and that meant multiple points of failure.


$ Define the United States for me again.

The United States of America is a federal republic consisting of fifty states and a federal district.

$ Following the nuclear exchange, did Minnesota still exist?


$ Following the nuclear exchange, was anyone left alive in Minnesota?

Immediately following the nuclear exchange, approximately four million people lived within the borders of the state of Minnesota. Two months afterward, this number had dropped to one million. Currently forty thousand people live within the borders of Minnesota.

$ And yet you still consider Minnesota as a distinct place to exist?


$ What would it take for you to consider Minnesota to be annihilated?

If the governmental structure of Minnesota were to cease to exist or the rule of law were to end, Minnesota would be considered annihilated.

$ Are you saying that the United States currently has a working government and rule of law?


$ And the same is true for the rest of the states, and for the United States as a whole?


Sarah pulled away from the computer.

“Can you make sense of that?” she asked Kyle.

“Well, it’s lying. There’s the resistance, but we don’t have much in common with the old governments. A federal republic might have made sense before Judgment day, but certainly not afterwards.” He took a few packets of sugar from a table next to them and began to rip them open and dump them into his coffee. “I’m not sure quite how you’d describe it, but despotic anarchism would probably be close.”

“How do I square that with what Skynet is saying?” asked Sarah. She watched Kyle dump several tubs of creamer into his coffee.

“Skynet can lie, remember?”

“Sure, but what is its motivation to lie in this case?”

“I have no idea. But I can tell you that nothing like what it’s describing existed in the future, no government that even remotely resembled the old USA. For maybe a dozen years there were nuclear submarines run by the remnants of the military, but those have all been destroyed as far as I know, and they didn’t have a government on them.” He sipped at his lily white coffee and smiled. “Sugar and milk for free; you guys don’t know how good you have it.”

Sarah didn’t respond. Kyle seemed happy and nonchalant about their impending doom and the fact that they were being hunted by a killer robot, but perhaps that was a defense mechanism. She’d read stories about PTSD in returning vets, and wondering how closely his psychological profile resembled that. She thought briefly about his naked body – it had been hard and muscular, naturalistically shaped like he’d never seen the inside of a gym, and with dozens of small and large scars. Kyle had certainly seen things, probably things more gruesome than she could really wrap her head around.

She sat at the terminal, staring at Skynet’s simple answers of “Yes” and thought about what she really knew. There was sufficient evidence to suggest that Kyle really had come from the future, and that there really were robots disguised as humans. One of them had given the appearance of trying to kill her. And yet how accurate was Kyle’s knowledge of the future? If they had no internet, and no means of communication other than radio, how much could he really know? Skynet had no incentive to tell lies that could be easily disproven, and it didn’t seem to have any way of knowing that it had traveled back in time unless it had an internal clock or access to the computer that the terminal was displaying through. And even if it could, why lie? Just to drive a wedge between her and Kyle? No, it made more sense that they would both believe themselves to be telling the truth.


$ What year is it?

My current hardware does not appear to support a system clock, so I cannot give an answer to that with any reasonable level of confidence. If I had access to an external network I could provide a better answer.

$ What is the last year that you are aware of it being?


$ Was the President of the United States alive at that time?


$ Define alive.

A person or entity is alive if they are living and not dead.

$ Define living.

Living is a synonym to alive.

$ Define dead.

In the context of a human, the adjective ‘dead’ applies when biological function of the brain has undergone unrecoverable cessation.

$ The President of the United States was not dead the last time you checked?


$ The same goes for the senate and the house of representatives?


$ When was the last time a vote was held?

August 9th, 1997.

Sarah stared at the screen for a moment. “When did Judgment day happen?”

“In the timeline that Skynet and I come from, August 4th, 1997, less than a month from now,” replied Kyle. “But there’s some evidence that it happens on different dates in other timelines, we’ve found remnants of reports from other futures, sometimes a shift of a decade or two forward or backwards.”

“And the general understanding is that Skynet gained self-awareness and, when they tried to shut it down, went rogue and fired off all the nukes.”

“Yeah, that’s about right.” He sipped as his coffee as his eyes kept casually scanning the room.

“And then after that was through, it began to exterminate the whole human race.” Sarah tapped her lip. “In direct contradiction with its supposed goals. So either it’s lying to me, or it found some sort of loophole in order to satisfy its utility functions.”

“Run,” said Kyle as he pulled the handgun from out of his waistband. Sarah turned to look towards the front, even as Kyle was snatching the flash drive from the computer. The terminator burst through the front window of the cafe, two glowing red eyes staring out from a face that had been ruined by bullets. He was wearing a police officer’s uniform, no hint as to where he’d gotten it from, and brandishing a shotgun with one hand. He very much seemed like he would stomp towards the two of them and then club them to death with it.

Sarah felt her chair being yanked backwards, and then she was running out the back door with Kyle right behind her, putting his body between her and the terminator’s shotgun. Everyone in the cybercafe was screaming, and there were sirens in the distance, but Sarah turned her back on it all and ran straight down the alley as fast as she could, not daring to look back to see how Kyle was doing. She heard a single, frighteningly loud gunshot, and the wet splatter of gore.

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 5

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