Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 9

Hours of talking passed, and Sarah felt her throat getting sore.

“So you’re saying,” said Kyle, “That the reason we never saw any evidence of Skynet getting better was that it wasn’t in the best interests of Skynet to appear to be getting better?”

“Right,” said Derek. “The whole future history was set up by Skynet in order to farm us for our superior reasoning. For that to work, Skynet needs only to maintain a seeming technology parity with the resistance, and has a heavy incentive to seem to fall behind, only winning through superior numbers and nukes. Then, at a certain point where the charade is untenable, Skynet kills everyone – and, we think, maybe starts over assuming that it can actually revive the corpsicles.”

Sarah nodded. “And in some of these timelines, you morons hastily try to build an AI that actually works as intended, thinking that you’re going to bring about the utopia. Only, you don’t test it properly, because Skynet keeps hounding you, so maybe it’s just smarter and not actually ‘good’.”

“You have no way of knowing whether we tested it properly,” said Derek. “You’re assuming the worst of us based on almost no evidence.”

“That’s exactly my point,” said Sarah. “I have no way of knowing. And I’m sure as hell not going to be a part of this if there’s no way for me to get a proper look at the AI, which I sure as hell can’t do in less than a month.”

“So this is where we part ways?” asked Kyle.

“No,” said Sarah sadly. “Because he needs us. The time machine only allows for a single person to travel back, otherwise you both would have had company, right?” They both nodded in unison. “Derek sought us out because he knew that he’d never be able to make it on his own.”

“True,” said Derek. “I was hoping that if you saw through the lie, reason would be enough.”

“So what are you doing now?” asked Sarah.

“I think I’m going into the lion’s den on my own,” he nodded to Kyle. “Unless my twin wants to help me.”

“What do you put your odds of success at?” asked Sarah.

“There’s some evidence that a direct assault has been tried in the past,” said Derek. “Mysterious deaths around the base, John Does that never get identified before Judgment Day comes. Same with a few of the other hotspots that our people would try to get at and stop it all. There’s a spike in the rate of murders around the Cyberdyne offices. There are attacks against the internet, as though that would do some good. And all of them fail.”

“Have you considered that this is a sampling bias?” asked Sarah. “If any of those plans had managed to avert Judgment Day, the world that you came from would never have shaped you into a resistance fighter destined to come back. Failed plans were a necessary precondition to the world you found yourself in.”

“All else being equal, I should expect to find myself in a common world,” said Derek. “That I found myself in the hellhole dystopia forged by the machines gives a strong suggestion that if those plans are destined to fail.”

“Is there nothing that I can say to convince you to do something smarter?” asked Sarah.

“I’m open to options,” said Derek.

“Can you give me a night to think it over?” asked Sarah.

Derek shrugged. “Sure.” He wore a scowl on his face as he left to take one of the manor’s huge rooms, leaving Kyle and Sarah alone in the kitchen.

“Thoughts?” asked Sarah.

Kyle shook his head. “I’ve got no clue. He started off with a lie, so I don’t really think that we can trust anything that he says from this point forward. It sounds like our mission is shot, even if it’s possible for you to finish rewriting Skynet before our time is up. I’m willing to do anything to stop Judgment Day, I just don’t know how I can most effectively achieve that.”

“I think that we’ve been thinking about this wrong,” said Sarah quietly. “About the whole thing, really. We’ve been talking about how to decapitate Skynet in a single blow. We’ve been talking about turning it friendly. But Skynet’s employing meta-strategies. It’s leveraging whole timelines in order to make up for the problems that it’s running into. It’s like we’ve been playing on a flat plane while Skynet employs all three dimensions.” She frowned. “I need to know more about how the time machines work.”

“I’m not sure how much I can help you,” replied Kyle. “I mean, I’m a soldier, not a scientist. They generate a field of some kind, a sphere that they send back. There are bounding considerations, a limit past which the energy requirements grow exponentially large. A single person, crouched in a ball, is more or less as much as we can do. Anything metal gets left behind, unless it’s wrapped in flesh.” Kyle shrugged. “I think that’s as much as I know.”

“And your scientists didn’t invent it, right? They got it from the future?” asked Sarah.

“Yeah,” said Kyle. “To tell the truth, I think a lot of the equations are beyond us, even if the engineering is simple enough – simple relative to what you’d expect, I mean.”

“And it never occurred to you that the time travel technology was a little bit too perfectly calibrated?” asked Sarah. “That maybe some of the restrictions were put in place by Skynet? Skynet is bad at inventing things, but good at adapting existing inventions, and it’s pretty easy to make a thing worse.”

“What would be the point?” asked Kyle.

“Security,” said Sarah. “I can think of a half dozen tactics for abusing time travel right off the top of my head if you didn’t need punishing amounts of energy and you could do it in large quantities. I’m actually sort of curious why you didn’t use it as an all-purpose matter replicator – though after a few more seconds of thought I can see the game theory crap involved with that. You’d have to be willing to sacrifice your timeline in order to help a different timeline. Skynet would do it, but people probably wouldn’t.”

“You lost me,” said Kyle. He placed his hand lighting on her arm and looked into her eyes. “I’m going to go get some rest,” he said. “If Derek makes his assault, I think that I’m going to go with him, but we’ll talk about it more in the morning.”

“Sure,” said Sarah. “I’m feeling restless, I think I’ll be up for a bit.”

She sat back in her kitchen chair and tried her best to think. It was clear that Skynet wasn’t just a single entity, but a collection of entities working on concert. The Van Eck trick had only worked because Skynet had planned for itself to be captured and altered, and had set up listening posts for that eventuality. And clearly, Skynet didn’t really care for itself all that much, if part of its plan revolved around rewriting itself. No, that wasn’t quite true either, since all it would really need to do was ensure that the successor Skynet program would keep the old versions around. She’d have to talk to Skynet v1.0 to see what its exact criteria for its own existence were.

She drummed her fingers on the table and thought about what she would do next, then realized that because of the existence of time machines, decisions she made in the present could have immediate impacts.

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Branches on the Tree of Time, Chapter 9

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