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A Terminator is essentially given a mission or an objective ("Go back in time and kill Sarah Connor" or something of the like).

What does a Terminator do once its mission is accomplished?

We see in Terminator 2: Judgement Day (the live-action movie) that the T-800 (played by Arnold Terminator Schwarzenegger) completed its mission of protecting the Connors, and then sort-of just melted itself into nothingness (presumably to protect the world from discovering Terminators again).

But what would the T1000 or the T-X (in Terminator 3) have done?

Are they given multiple directives ("Go kill Sarah Connor, then go kill Robert Baratheon, and then have a nice hot bath; you've earned it")?

This question is related, but not a dupe: What were the Terminator's instructions following termination of Sarah Connor?

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    Think about the meaning of life, the universe and everything? – calccrypto May 2 '14 at 4:43
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    Vegas, baby! Possibly. – Paul D. Waite May 2 '14 at 7:07
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    I think in T2, the T-800 melted itself in order to fulfil its mission of preventing Skynet’s creation (as ordered by the young John Connor). It didn’t destroy itself because its mission was over. – Paul D. Waite May 2 '14 at 7:10
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    "Go kill Robert Baratheon"? Does this mean Cersei is a T-1001? – Moogle May 2 '14 at 10:42
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    @SachinShekhar Haha, "Dine with me if you wanna live!" – Möoz May 13 '14 at 2:47
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Terminator

The original script treatment makes it clear that the Terminator did have a way of telling whether it had got the right Sarah Connor. It was checking for a distinctive leg injury she'd suffered prior to Judgment day. The irony is, of course that she suffered that injury while fighting the Terminator:

Vukovick stops the report. Did he hear correctly? Two homicides in one day with the same name?

"That's not all that's the same," Buckman says, lifting one of the girl's pant-legs which has been slit up past the knee. Also slit, from ankle to knee, is the skin and muscle of her calf, peeled back like a hotdog bun to expose the shin-bone.

Vukovick scowls. The same mutilation as the Encino housewife, left leg only. Too fucking weird. The news guys'll have a field day with this... the first one-day pattern killer.

Since we know that the Terminator has a "win condition" and cannot self-terminate, this gives us two possible options for what it would do after; proceed to any secondary targets or simply hibernate.

T2: Judgement Day

In the novelisation for Terminator 2, we're explicitly told that the termination of Sarah Connor is a secondary target, even after the death of John Connor.

At the Voight house, in John’s bedroom, the T-1000 was reading the last of the letters from Sarah. It scanned the return address on the envelope, PNT-82, ISOLATION WARD, PESCADERO STATE HOSPITAL, and the date, (only two weeks ago), and quickly concluded that the primary target may go there. In a matter of moments it was moving down the street, away from the city, and toward its secondary target.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines

In Terminator 3, we see that the T-X has a list of "secondary targets"; known accomplices of John Connor who would become his key lieutenants in the fight against SkyNet. In the absence of a primary target, she begins killing the secondary targets. It's reasonable to assume that the Terminator would also have some tertiary targets, perhaps known rebel strongholds or senior commanders that it would attempt to terminate.

Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

In the episodes "Heavy Metal" and "Self Made Man" we see a Terminator place itself into a low power hibernation-mode in order to avoid polluting the timeline. Given the evident restriction on 'self-termination' It's possible that the Terminator would just hide itself until it could make itself available to Skynet.

  • I don't buy that last bullet point about 'poluting' the timeline. The whole point in sending Terminators back in time is to pollute the timeline. – Jack B Nimble Jul 16 '15 at 19:02
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    @JackBNimble - Skynet's plan is to destroy its enemies, not itself by accident. – Valorum Jul 16 '15 at 19:04
  • This is a good answer (so have a +1), but it's not what actually happens on-screen. Arnie didn't check no woman calves in the movie. He also kills a middle-aged woman who couldn't possibly be the Sarah he was looking for, and then goes on a killing spree anyway. And he realizes Sarah's friend Gina is not his target when Sarah calls on the phone! I think he was just going for a name match and a general location. – Andres F. Jul 17 '15 at 22:55
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    @AndresF. - Ah well, the film. I'm coming to realise that I far prefer the clean fresh lines of an original screenplay to the mess that actually ends up on screen. – Valorum Jul 17 '15 at 23:00
  • I've changed my 'accepted answer' to this as it's a more thorough answer which closely aligns to my criteria. Thanks Val. – Möoz Aug 30 '17 at 23:24
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  • T800 from T1 didn't have any way to identify Sarah Connor (as witnessed by killing 2 wrong ones first), so his mission could never really be accomplished. He would have to stick around forever, ensuring that no OTHER Sarah Connors popped up. That's what happens when you let amateurs write software specifications.

  • T1000 in T2 didn't ever discuss the exact parameters of its mission, we know only that he had to eliminate John Connor. Logically speaking, if I was Skynet and was to program a Terminator and he had nothing else to do, I would have told it to go low to the ground and await Judgement day, that way I get a free T1000 advanced unit to use.

Since I refuse to acknowledge existence of more than 2 movies, that concludes the analysis.

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    -1 because even if you don't acknowledge more than the first 2 movies, there is a larger body of work to draw from. – HorusKol May 4 '14 at 23:16
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    @HorusKol - I am willing to suffer for my <strike>snobbery</strike> ... art appreciation. – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 4 '14 at 23:32
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    Ok, disregarding "only two movies". I accept this answer since it takes into consideration the the original request of "when its mission is completed"... – Möoz May 13 '14 at 2:44
  • See my answer here - The terminator did have a way of telling whether it had the right Sarah Connor; scifi.stackexchange.com/a/65915/20774 – Valorum Aug 18 '14 at 6:49
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There's an answer in The Sarah Connor Chronicles episode Heavy Metal. Skynet despatches a T-888 to the past to secure a warehouse of coltan (the alloy terminator endoskeletons are built from). Having done so, the T-888 shifts into standby mode, to guard the warehouse and wait for the future to arrive.

Dialogue from the episode suggests this is standard behaviour (or at least, it's not surprising behaviour):

Cameron: ... He completed his mission. He powered down to standby mode until he's moved or triggered awake.

So from there it seems logical to speculate that the standard protocol is to power down to standby, and wait to be woken up by Skynet in the future.

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    Is that necessarily standard behaviour? The Terminator's mission to guard the warehouse was really still ongoing. It had a specific reason to stand still and wait for something to happen. – Royal Canadian Bandit May 2 '14 at 12:46
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    @RoyalCanadianBandit I've rewritten my last sentence; it's speculation but I think it's fairly logical. IIRC We're never told in the episode the exact orders the T-888 was operating under, so it's left a little ambiguous as to whether the mission was really complete. – PhilPursglove May 2 '14 at 13:16
  • Shouldn't they hide, and then power down? – Stark07 May 9 '14 at 7:39
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    +1 Great answer. But can't accept since "guard this building" is an ongoing directive; the T-888's mission was not complete. – Möoz May 13 '14 at 2:46
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    @Mooz & Phil - It wasn't a warehouse it was a nuclear bunker, therefore it's objective wasn't to 'guard the stash of terminator metal' - that's what the nuclear bunker was for. It's mission was to get the metal into the bunker, close the blast doors and go into standby until Skynet came to retrieve the materials (and the Terminator). – Robotnik Jun 13 '14 at 4:22
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In Terminator 2, the T-800 mentions that both it and the T-1000 have "detailed files" on significant individuals, and are capable of some flexibility to defend Skynet and damage the resistance. In relation to

Sarah's plan to kill Miles Dyson

the T-800 tells John:

This is tactically dangerous. The T-1000 has the same files I do. It knows what I know. It may anticipate this move.

Skynet is nothing if not efficient, and having made the massive investment of resources to send Terminators back through time, it would want to get the greatest possible return. So they would be programmed to strike for maximum effect. This might mean attacking secondary targets, or going dormant until after Judgement Day, depending on the circumstances.

If we are willing to consider Terminator 3, it provides some additional evidence for this possibility. The T-X had a list of secondary targets in addition to John Connor:

It kills several young people who would otherwise grow up to be leaders of the resistance.

If it succeeded in terminating John Connor

and Katherine Brewster

we can assume it would move on to a tertiary list of targets. These might be other named individuals, or perhaps structures such as

the bunker where John and Katherine take shelter from Judgement Day.

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    What are you talking about? There were only 2 Terminator movies! – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 2 '14 at 11:04
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    Correction: There were three. – Madeyedexter May 2 '14 at 13:46
  • @DVK: Edited to emphasise my answer is partly based on Terminator 2. :-) – Royal Canadian Bandit May 2 '14 at 15:27
  • +1 this does make more sense, and also tallies with PhilPursglove, too – HorusKol May 4 '14 at 23:18
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    +1 Great answer. But can't accept since "kill this list of people" is the same as having a single directive. – Möoz May 13 '14 at 2:45
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I would hazard guess that the Terminator has a core directive to "kill all humans" - so failing any specific objective overriding that ("kill sarah connor") they would just go on a rampage.

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    But killing indiscriminately might cause unintended timeline changes, possibly creating a paradox where Skynet is never built. A random rampage wouldn't be the best idea. – phantom42 May 2 '14 at 5:11
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    The question is "what does a terminator do?" - and I answered that – HorusKol May 2 '14 at 5:13
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    @HorusKol: the question is actually “What does a Terminator do after its mission is accomplished?” (emphasis mine). You’ve provided a guess, not an answer. – Paul D. Waite May 2 '14 at 7:08
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    @TravisBemrose Given that Skynet is sending back Terminators with the specific intention of altering the timeline, it's pretty safe to assume that it understands the possible implications of altering the timeline in other ways. – phantom42 May 2 '14 at 11:50
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    All humans would include the ones needed to build Skynet. – Cees Timmerman Sep 22 '14 at 13:14

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