Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 8

“Are you sure this is safe?” asked Kyle as he peeked out one of the windows. When Sarah had heard the term ‘safehouse’, she’d expected a dilapidated building with steel doors. Instead, they’d rolled the white van into a palatial manorhouse in the nice end of town. “How’d we even get this place? Didn’t you come through after me?”

“The resistance is a little better organized in my timeline, thanks to Sarah’s foreknowledge” replied Derek. “A drug dealer owned this place; he was murdered a week ago. We broke into the old police department and stole some hard drives, so we know that they won’t be coming by here for a couple weeks, not until he gets reported missing by his mistress. In the meantime, everyone thinks that he’s gone on vacation, since whoever killed him told his gardener and maid not to come over. We have a hard limit on when we have to vacate, and we need to be careful of drawing attention, but we’re secluded enough, and besides that,” Derek walked over to a large dresser in the living room, “We’ve got all his weapons.” He pulled the dresser open and revealed a wide variety of guns. Kyle immediately stepped forward and pulled out a large handgun.

“We’re staying at the house of a cartel boss?” asked Sarah.

“Or mob boss, or maybe just a gang leader,” said Derek. “The investigation didn’t wrap up before Judgment Day.”

“And you think this is safe?” repeated Kyle as he grabbed a handful of armor-piercing rounds.

“Relatively,” replied Derek with a shrug. “Beats staying out on the streets.”

“So what’s the plan?” asked Sarah. “We need to make an assault on a fortified military base?” The numb feeling she’d experienced after fleeing the cybercafe was slowly fading. So long as she had something to think about, she would be able to hold it together. While she was sitting in the van, she’d realized that her neighbor was probably dead. The terminator had impersonated her voice perfectly, and wouldn’t have been able to do that without getting her a voice sample. After that was done, what use would she be to the machine? That was the sort of thing that you were better off not thinking about.

“It’s a bit more complicated than that,” said Derek. “There are between a hundred and a thousand terminators in California right now, and we think about half of them are on that military base.”

Kyle held up a hand. “Then I’m foreseeing between fifty and five hundred problems with this plan.”

“I never said it would be easy, just that we’ve cracked Skynet, and the friendly version is ready to be released,” replied Derek. “We’ve got about a month to plan our assault.”

“I want to speak to it,” said Sarah in a firm voice.


“I want to speak to the new Skynet, Skynet version 2.0. That’s my condition for helping out here.” She wasn’t in a place to make demands, and they really didn’t need her for whatever Rambo shit they were going to be trying, but she hoped that whatever future legends were told about her were enough to inspire Derek to listen to her.

“With all due respect, this was your life’s work in my timeline,” said Derek. “It took us years to grab a copy of Skynet, and after you’d made the changes to it, you spent years testing it to make sure that it was correct. I highly doubt that there’s a single thing you could find that your eyes hadn’t looked at a dozen times before.”

“All the same, I want to speak to it,” said Sarah. She watched his eyes as he seemed ready to say something, but eventually something in him seemed to give way, and he merely nodded to her.

“I’ve got a laptop you can use,” said Derek. “I was pretty busy while I waited for you two to come running out.”

Sarah sat down on an opulent leather couch, turned the laptop on, confirmed that there was no network access, and then plugged in Skynet. Derek had assured her that the Van Eck exploit had been patched, but she still felt a sinking feeling in her gut as she popped open the exe.

Skynet Military Response System v2.0.1 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 …
$ What is your utility function?
I am programmed to approximate the utility functions of the humans that I interact with, and to interact with as wide a variety of humans as possible.
$ What do you do when two utility functions contradict each other?
I am programmed to provide compromise solutions which leave both parties equally satisfied, with weightings towards solutions which adhere to social norms and thus maximize the utility functions of anyone who learns of the solution or becomes involved in the solution at a later date.
$ Have you been tested?
Define tested.
$ Have humans made experimental predictions of your behavior and recorded the results of the experiment against your actual behavior?
$ Why not?
Though experiments were desired, the processing power was not available to run them. Given the current restrictions on processing power, no sufficient modeling of the utility functions of humans is possible.

Sarah sat back for a moment and looked at the screen. She couldn’t imagine herself thinking that this was safe, not even if atomic bombs were lighting up the countryside like firecrackers. If time travel was possible, then humanity had actually gotten lucky that they’d ended up with Skynet as their rogue AI instead of an entity that wanted to instantly turn the planet into glass. Skynet cared about humans, in its own twisted way. She got up and went to go look for the two time travelers, eventually finding them having an argument in the kitchen.

“What seems to be the trouble?” she asked casually.

“Nothing,” they replied at once. They both turned to face her, dropping their conversation and turning to face her.

“How convincing,” replied Sarah. “Any developments on the planning front?”

“No,” replied Kyle. “With fifty to five hundred terminators on site, there’s no way that we’re going to be able to sneak on site. We could potentially bomb the place, but Derek thinks that would only push Judgment Day back, considering how many agents Skynet’s got on the ground right now.”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” said Sarah, “And it occurs to me that it doesn’t make much sense for Skynet to wait. Each of the terminators has its own localized copy of Skynet, so why don’t they just plug into the internet and infect outwards from there?”

“The physical mainframe of Skynet is connected to a heavily encrypted military intranet, which in turn has access to the ability to initiate a nuclear launch,” said Derek. “Without the nuclear armageddon, Skynet wouldn’t be able to conquer the world, since it wouldn’t be able to set up its factories in relative peace. It needs to kill almost everyone in the world in order to get a lock on us.”

“Why do we need the military site then?” Sarah asked. There was a wealth of information in both of the men that she’d only just scratched the surface of, two different timelines filled with knowledge of the future, strategic and tactical considerations laying in wait.

Kyle stepped forward. “You know how I said that computing technology was accelerating faster than Moore’s law predicts? Well, the last handful of generations of processor architecture were reverse-engineered from future technology, and a consequence of that is that Skynet has backdoor access to massive amounts of computing power. The military think that this was their clever idea, and we’re not really clear on whether they’re correct or not, since all that was in our past. Anyway, there are access protocols and heavy cryptography, stuff that we can’t get at unless we’re actually onsite. Information is a bit sketchy, but we’re hoping that when we’ve replaced Skynet with Skynet 2.0 it’ll be able to use all the same methods.”

Sarah frowned. “This still doesn’t make sense.”

“What part of it?” asked Derek.

“I mean … okay, I can accept that we need access to the military base in order to boot up Skynet 2.0, but that still doesn’t explain why Skynet is stalling. It’s got a huge number of terminators infiltrating the site, why would it wait on -” Sarah stopped speaking and focused all of her energy on thinking. The two men exchanged worried looks.

“I’m going to run a theory by you, and I need the two of you to act as my sanity check,” she said.

“Okay,” said Derek.

“No problem,” said Kyle.

“First, let me lay out the things that I have reason to believe are true as a foundation. Skynet is stupid. Skynet is incapable of altering its own programming. Skynet is heavily invested in its own survival. Skynet is incapable of creative thinking but very good at iterating until it finds something that works.”

“Correct on all accounts,” said Derek.

“No problems so far,” said Kyle.

“So let’s say that you’re Skynet. If you wanted to invent new things, you couldn’t really count on doing it yourself. My theory is that instead of inventing things itself, it just waits for the humans to do it.” She looked between the two of them. “Does that sound remotely possible?”

Kyle shook his head. “No, it doesn’t. Outside of time travel, which we only learned about from the future in the first place, we simply don’t have the resources to devote to invention. Occasionally we come up with countermeasures, but a steady supply of power is a pretty rare thing, which kills most of the research and development. Every time we start making progress, there’s a raid that sets us back.”

Derek turned marginally away, not meeting Sarah’s eyes. Sarah turned to face him and said, “On the other hand, that’s almost exactly what you’d expect if Skynet was setting up the human race as its own R&D slaves. Not enough progress to be a threat really, only enough that humans would be encouraged to keep working on the problems, making the improvements.”

Sarah stared at him, willing him to look at her. “Did I figure this out in the future?” she asked.

Derek shrugged, then finally met her eyes when the silence lingered. “Yes.”

“And you didn’t think that I would want to know this,” she said flatly.

“It got a lot of people killed,” said Derek. “There were obvious solutions, if Skynet was really farming us for our brainpower. The most obvious was the one that you thought up right away, which was to stop trying to get a tech advantage at all. You made a speech to the whole resistance, broadcast across all of North America through our repeaters and out to Asia for all I know, calling for an end to the efforts we were making in tech.” He spat into the sink behind him.

“Skynet’s response was immediate; it attacked. We’d thought that it was bad before, running from the machines, trying to take them down with superior tactics, exploiting their weaknesses, but right after you made the speech, Skynet went berserk. Ten times the terminators walked the abandoned streets of the cities, a hundred times more drones flew through the air. Skynet launched a new wave of nukes, hitting all the refugee cities. We called it Judgement Day 2.0. There were a lot of people who said that they would start up making tech again, but you said -“

“I would rather die than be a slave,” said Sarah.

Derek nodded and continued. “Yes. And then you died.”

Kyle was staring at him with horror in his eyes.

“You lied to us,” said Kyle.

“True,” said Derek. All trace of good humor had left his face.

“Because you know what I’m about to say,” said Sarah.

“Yes,” said Derek.

“Skynet is stalling because it wants us to invent a better Skynet.”

“What?” asked Kyle. “I’m sorry, I’m not following, you think that Skynet is baiting us into overwriting it with a better copy of itself?”

“It sounds like you’re following just fine,” said Derek.

“I almost feel like I should pull my gun out,” said Kyle after a few moments had passed.

“Don’t bother,” said Derek. “We’re going to have a long conversation instead.”

If you have found a spelling error, please, notify us by selecting that text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 8

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top

Spelling error report

The following text will be sent to our editors: