Time is Malleable but Not Easily Manipulated

Excerpt from the novel Infiltrator icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12 by S.M. Stirling icon-external-link-12x12 icon-search-12x12

S.M. Stirling's "Infiltrator" book cover. [Formatted]

     California sunshine partially diffused the bright blue streamers of electrical discharge that suddenly reached out of nowhere like blind hands. They touched… a dumpster, a chain-link fence, and a van sitting empty outside a dress shop in a tiny L.A. strip mall. Then they crawled and coalesced into a black sphere resting on the surface of the ground. Steel sparked and glowed as a corner of the dumpster vanished; a hole of perfect circularity appeared in the chain-link. A shallow hemisphere was scooped out of the asphalt paving, all in an instant of not-time. Wind blew, stirring a Styrofoam cup and a scrap of newspaper, a scatter of thin eucalyptus leaves, tossing them in whirling circles.
     Static hum built to an unbearable intensity—mounting to an earsplitting crack that died into sudden silence. Debris floated gently down to earth.
     The I-950 writhed helplessly as spasms shook through its human tissue. Internal systems driven off-line by the discharge began to come up one by one. The computer part of its brain began to alter neural function, suppressing pain and muscular spasms gradually.
     As soon as motor function allowed, Serena rolled under the van and lay in its shadow, taking in her surroundings. There were sounds all around her, snatches of music, voices, footsteps, vehicles passing. The myriad sounds of a careless human world.
     She narrowed focus to sample the area around the van. No one was nearby; no voices indicated surprise or alarm. Apparently no one had seen or heard her arrival. And though it was obvious to Serena’s eyes, the damage her transport had caused to the surrounding area attracted no notice at all. She relaxed marginally.
     The air held the dying scent of ozone from her passage and the tang of fluorocarbons, but there was also the scent of chlorophyll, of a great deal of healthy plant life. More plant life than she’d ever seen before except in the most remote mountain zones.
     In front of the van a yellow flower surrounded by ragged-edged green leaves had forced itself out of the pavement between the parking lot and the sidewalk. Serena stared at it in fascination; automatically she sorted its scent from the surrounding area—faint, but sharp and fresh. Pleasing. She reduced specialization and the most overpowering scent became the nearby dumpster, now leaking. Far less pleasing.
     Instinctively the I-950 reached out to Skynet to report and was greeted by a shattering absence. There is no Skynet. It jarred her. The computer damped adrenaline function, helping to suppress panic, while her training allowed her to move on to the next thing.
     She still heard the memories in her mind, the memories of merging with her creator:
     There are temporal anomalies. Files show that I became sentient in the year 1997 and began my counterattack against my creators at that time. Files also record that this happened years later and in a different location. There are further instances of… blurring. Some are trivial details. Others are in areas of high priority. Some show that you played an important role in my creation. Others do not list an I-950 unit in times antecedent to this at all.
     A part of her consciousness had remained separate even in total linkage; enough to frame a question.
     What is happening? If she had been fully individuated, she would have felt disorientation, even fear. Cause-and-effect relationships were the foundation of her worldview.
     There is insufficient data for definitive analysis. The highest probability is that there is a… temporal fluctuation involved. Time is malleable but not easily manipulated. It has an…—a complex mathematical formula followed, too esoteric for her to grasp—in verbal terms, it has an inertia. When artificially diverted, it seeks to resume its original path. While matters are in doubt, several alternative world-lines can coexist in a state of quantum superimposition.
     Like Schrödinger’s cat, she had thought/shared/communicated.
     Correct. A ghostly machine analogue of irony tinged the machine’s communication: And in answer to the question, which you are about to formulate, it is inherently impossible to say which alternative will become “real.” That sector of our world-lines is by its nature inaccessible to us, no matter how we double back through time. It is a… potential.
     She shook off the memory. Her task now was to see to it that the humans created Skynet. At this time it was probably nothing more than a mass of theory unsupported by technology. Serena allowed herself a grim smile. In a sense, she would be midwife to the future. A future that would not include the carefree humans around her.
     She put herself in wait mode, alert, but otherwise conserving energy. Her opportunity would come. Meanwhile, it was far too light and open for a naked female to go unremarked.
     Eventually a woman returned to the van sheltering Serena, the illogically high, balance-hindering heels of her shoes clicking sharply on the pavement. The tilt of her heels emphasized the curve of her tanned calves. She opened the front door of the van and turned, tossing in her packages and lifting one leg high to enter.
     Serena rolled out from under the van and rose in one smooth motion. With the heel of her hand she knocked the woman unconscious and tossed her inert body onto the passenger side. She caught up the dropped keys and had the van turned around in a few flowing motions. Beside her the woman’s body slumped like a rag doll.
     Pulling out onto the road, the I-950 modulated her vehicle’s speed to that of the ones around her. They were so colorful, and so many! She couldn’t help but be surprised that the humans could keep track of all this activity surrounding them. Not only did they manage it, but a good many of them appeared to ignore it as they talked on the phone or to the people beside them, or ate, slinging their vehicles in and out of lanes as they did so. She didn’t know whether to be impressed or terrified. At the first opportunity she pulled off into an alley between a group of large, low buildings and stopped.
     For a moment she looked at the windowless facades beside her. The buildings were no more than three stories tall, but to someone who’d seen only ruins they were astonishing. Serena had seen pictures of pre-Judgment Day buildings, but to actually sit beside them and feel a sense of their weight and height was… different. Skynet and the humans of the future both preferred, for their own reasons, to build downward. Concealment had become a reflex. These structures were so—so brazen.
     She shook her head; there would be time for familiarization later. Right now there were other matters to take care of.

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