Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 7

The three of them walked swiftly down the street. The newcomer had slipped his shotgun into a duffel bag that he carried over his shoulder. Kyle kept stealing glances at him, but Sarah seemed to accept his presence with the attitude of someone who had simply seen too much in too short of a time period. Kyle wanted to ask questions, but now was the time to evade the police. Eventually the sounds of the sirens faded in the distance. Kyle wondered what the police would make of the dead cyborg in the alley.

“What’s your name?” asked Kyle.

“Kyle Reese,” replied the newcomer. “But you can call me Derek, to prevent any confusion.”

“You’re me?” asked Kyle. “An alternate timeline version of me?”

“He wouldn’t be,” said Sarah with a flat tone. “There are thousands of sperm to every egg, so you wouldn’t expect the same sex act to result in the same child every time. Hell, you wouldn’t expect the same sex act to happen at all, even if you’ve got the same two people as parents. He’s more like your brother. There’s an obvious family resemblance.”

“Derek is my brother’s name,” said Kyle.

“Funny enough, mine too,” said Derek with a grin. “I’m here to help out, to make sure that the mission gets completed.”

“But the fact that you’re here means we failed,” said Sarah. “Because if we’d successfully stopped Judgment Day, there’d be no reason for you to help us out.”

“You need a debrief,” said Derek. “Come on, my van is just around the corner.”

They climbed into a white utility van, with Sarah in the back. She was acting strangely, and Kyle could see the first signs of shell shock showing on her face. It was exactly what they didn’t need. She unfolded the seat and strapped herself in with mechanical motions. Kyle was worried about her, and not only because mental trauma would endanger the mission. Derek tore out of the parking lot just as there was a loud bang in the distance, the tell-tale sound of a truly dead terminator going into self-destruct.

“So here’s the history of the future that I came from,” said Derek. He stared at the road, but slightly inclined his head toward Kyle. “The two of you escaped from the terminator, stole a laptop, and hunkered down in a motel to finish out the work. Sarah managed to make the alterations to Skynet, but then you found out that you had to get hard, physical access to heavily encrypted keys in order to make it work. You showed up at the military base where the supercomputer is held, you were killed, and Sarah was put in a mental institution. Judgment Day happened about three months after that, Sarah escaped from lockdown, and the future proceeded roughly the same as it ever did. John was born, became the resistance leader, I was born instead of you, and when time travel was invented, John decided to pack it up and do a retreating action into the deep past.”

“And you, like me, took a long shot to try to turn things around?” asked Kyle. “To try making a friendly AI work?”

Derek nodded. “More or less. If you have more questions, let me know.”

“About a thousand,” said Kyle. “How the hell did the terminator find us?”

“It took awhile to work that out,” replied Derek. “You’ve heard of Van Eck phreaking?”

Kyle shook his head.

“Yeah, well, I don’t fully understand it myself, but apparently the machines can listen in on computer monitors. You unplugged the computer running Skynet from a network connection, but it still had access to one section of the computer monitor through the terminal you had open. You couldn’t see it but, Skynet was running modulations in its text output which translated themselves into a prearranged RF signal, and the terminator was able to home in on it. We actually think that there are maybe a thousand different terminators working in concert in the years before Judgment Day, which would allow them to have bugged most of downtown LA for trapped instances of Skynet.” Derek frowned slightly. “Obviously I’ve got an updated copy of the software, the complete code that we’re going to inject into Skynet’s mainframe prior to Judgment Day.”

Sarah leaned forward, straining against her seatbelt, until she was between the two men. “You’re saying that I did it? I found out a way to make it friendly?”

“I wouldn’t be here if you hadn’t,” said Derek. “Unlike my ‘brother’ here I don’t take on missions that have a low chance of survival.” He reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out a flash drive, the twin of the one that Kyle held in his hand. “It’s all right here, and I’ve got another one sewn under my skin in case we need it.”

“This just got a whole lot easier,” said Kyle. “To be honest, I was a little worried about getting in under deadline.”

“I’d already gotten a piece of the puzzle at the cybercafe,” said Sarah. “There was a flaw in the definitions.” She turned to Derek. “The definition of dead that Skynet was operating under only mentioned ‘unrecoverable cessation’ of brain activity. So Skynet could just flash freeze all the brains it needed and keep them frozen in cryogenic facilities, like some eternal vigil of dead congressmen. It wouldn’t matter that Skynet had no plans to ever wake them up, so long as they weren’t technically unrecoverable. Tell me if I’m getting warm.”

“We found the cryogenic facilities based on your hunch, but only a few days later they were cleared out. The bodies were launched into space. We think that maybe that was Skynet’s response to our plan to attack them in one of the timelines. Skynet is – or was – monkeying around with the Constitution and the various state laws as well, but we don’t really know the mechanisms behind all that. It’s all twisted machine logic, we think it has basic control over what it considers to be the legal structure, such that what it’s doing is technically within the confines of the law as Skynet interprets the law.

“We also think that’s why it never wiped us all out. It’s trying to balance the existence of humanity against the existence of itself. There’s pretty much no way for the resistance to beat Skynet, especially since it probably has redundant off-planet backups, so all Skynet really needs to do into the foreseeable future is keep humanity harried enough that we can’t build EMPs or a friendly AI that can beat it, at least until such time as it can cryogenically freeze enough of us that it can complete the irradiation of the planet and kill everyone who’s not frozen.” Derek’s fingers drummed the wheel. “I’m taking you to a safehouse, we can talk more there.”

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 7

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