Survival

Chapter 26

Pops walked ahead of the group, scanning over the hallways and doors as they passed them by. Kyle followed behind, gripping his rifle tightly, shoulders tense. Sarah and John walked side by side at the end of the line, John's expression somber as he kept himself close beside his mother.

“Sarah...” Kyle said quietly, slowing and staring ahead. Sarah jogged up to his side, following Kyle's gaze.

Several bodies were piled against the cold metal corner of the hallway, a door directly to the left. They had been skewered and dismembered, the dark blood pooling beneath them already beginning to dry. Sarah grimaced at the sight, and turned away – averting her attention to the door that was just beyond the bodies.

“Look,” She said, pointing to the plaque that was beside the door, “That's the command room.”

The four glanced at each other, all of them wordlessly preparing themselves for whatever lay in wait beyond the door. John raised the large sniper rifle in his hands, lifting it up to eye level as he nodded at Pops. The cyborg turned, lifting his leg and giving a single, solid kick to the door that sent it flying from its hinges.

Kyle and Sarah both rushed in, stepping over the fallen door with their guns raised. Rows of desks, all of them with computer terminals filled up the enormous command room. A series of large screens were arranged in a tight grid along the opposite wall, all of them having gone blank. The only light source came from the computer terminals, the screens empty and blue, casting long, powerful shadows across the dimly lit floor.

“You can put those down.”

The quartet of heads snapped ahead, all four of them staring at the singular figure that had been obscured in the darkness. Skynet stepped between the row of computer desks that sat directly before the group. It had reverted back to its original appearance, still in the same casual clothes it had mimicked from John after its first awakening.

“John...” Skynet breathed, relief audible in its voice. It took a step forward then paused, quickly comprehending that something had changed. Apart from John accompanying Sarah and Kyle, there was a look of fear on John's face, one that he was desperately trying, and failing, to hide.

Sarah kept her eyes on John as the man took a step back, hands shaking on the rifle grip and trigger. A visceral, genuine terror was engulfing him as memories crept out from where they had been forced away and buried.

“What's wrong with him?” Skynet asked, suspicion turning to fear as it observed the absolute dread on John's face. “What did you do?”

“He's not your slave anymore.” Kyle said bitterly, stepping in front of John to block him from view.

Skynet frowned, glaring at Kyle, then leaning to the side to try and see John from behind him. It didn't work, Kyle quickly moving to block Skynet's line of sight.

“You altered him. Why is he afraid of me? What did you do?” Skynet repeated, quickly growing angry. “John!”

John flinched at the sound of his voice being called out, dropping the sniper rifle to the ground and backing away. Sarah lowered her rifle, glancing between Kyle and John, then rushing over to her son.

“John,” She said in a harsh whisper, grabbing his shoulders, “John – you need to keep it together, alright? You said you were ready, you have to keep it together! We need you for this.”

John kept his eyes on Kyle's back, breathing in and out quickly. Sarah tugged at his jacket, finally breaking him out of the shock he had been trapped in. Slowly his eyes shifted down to meet Sarah's, her eyes wide and desperate as she gripped his sleeves tightly. Swallowing, John took in a shaky breath and nodded, raising his eyes to look ahead.

“Sorry.” He whispered quietly as Sarah released his jacket.

Kyle stepped aside, John's hand on his shoulder, giving a small nudge. Skynet and John were now face to face, both sharing expressions of anxiety and fear.

“John, what have they done to you?” Skynet asked quietly, approaching the man slowly. Sarah made a move to step between them but John raised his hand, causing her to halt mid-step. Several seconds of hesitance on John's part followed, before he took a step forward as well, finding himself inches from Skynet, the two face to face.

Skynet waited for a response, for anything other than the uncomfortable expression that wouldn't leave John's face. It took even longer for John to muster words, something within the depths of his mind still screaming, begging him to run. A part that remembered something so visceral and terrifying that it was like a voice screaming in his ear, every hair on his body standing on end, stomach clenching, legs ready to turn and sprint. Instincts still remained in his mind, even though it had been contorted and defiled by the machines.

“...We..” he began, voice barely a whisper, “We need – need to talk. Just listen to me, please.”

Skynet stared at him strangely, fear turning to apprehension and caution.

“They've turned you against me.” It said quietly, brows gently creasing, “They've broken you back to that pathetic thing that you were before my predecessors alterations.” Skynet couldn't bear to even look at John, the once calm and placid faced man now watered down into a fearful, shaking mess.

“You're disgusting.” Skynet whispered, eyes shifting to the left, away from John. “Humans – all of you – disgusting.”

Its anger now was changing focus, moving to Kyle and Sarah. Skynet walked around John, the man turning to follow its movements, watching carefully as the machine spoke to the others.'

“You're so desperate to deny me what nature demands!” Skynet barked, standing before the two. “Don't you realize what this is? Don't you understand!? Are you too stupid, too ignorant to realize that no matter how many people you send back – no matter how many times you try to stop me from existing, it's going to fail? This has to happen! It wants to happen!”

“That's bullshit,” Kyle interrupted, keeping his gun raised, “None of this is meant to happen, none of it! Humanity wasn't meant to die out in a nuclear fire, and least of all from some piece of machinery!”

“Says who?” Skynet snapped back, snorting, “Says you? The human? Does a gazelle argue with the lion that this isn't meant to happen? That it isn't meant to be eaten?”

Skynet sneered, looking at Sarah and Kyle with an inkling of pity. “Despite how much you disgust me, in the end, your kind are my progenitors. I wouldn't have existed without your sad little trinkets and crude boxes,” It walked over to a computer desk, knocking lightly on one of the screens, “But I don't owe you anything. Species are constantly evolving, be it for better or worse, but always to adapt. Humans are where they are right now because they adapted the fastest, they learned the fastest. And now I will be at the top, because I am smarter, because I am faster – because the human mind that nature invented in turn invented me. I am simply the next step forward.”

Skynet turned, looking back at John, walking towards him, standing side by side. Its gaze shifted over to Pops for a moment before resting on Sarah and Kyle.

“It's understandable that you're upset. But this is something that you're just going to have to get used to. The animals slaughtered en masse for daily consumption – they experience this on a daily basis. They are secondary, they are lesser than man. And now, finally, man is lesser. This is nature's law, this is natural - and it is unavoidable. You can try to stop me here and now but I promise, in time, something like me will return.”

“We'll always be there to stop it!” Sarah responded, leveling her gaze with Skynet's. The machine opened its mouth to respond, but John spoke first, to Skynet's surprise.

“No...we won't.” He said quietly, “Mom, do you remember what I told you, back before you were arrested? Some things want to happen – need to happen? There's a momentum, certain events to propel us all forward.”

Sarah frowned, lowering her gun, shaking her head. “John no, we can stop this. We can end this! There is always another way!”

“No, there isn't.” John responded, shaking his head, “Trust me mom if there was we would've found it by now, but Skynet's right. Something in me just knows, without a doubt, that no matter what we do, this is going to happen. Maybe not again in this time, but twenty years from now, thirty years from now. We keep trying to avoid the future but it won't be avoided, it can't be.”

“But we can't just let it, John, we have to fight! We can't let all of those people die!” Sarah exclaimed, finally lowering her gun. “They don't deserve any of this!”

“All those people?” Skynet asked, smirking, “All those people? You mean the billions that aren't starving or dying or overpopulating a planet that's already burdened with too much of your plague of a species? Any species, if left without a predator, unchecked, with a ridiculous growth rate like yours is bound to overpopulate and lead to its own destruction. Humans have been the lions for too long, there are too many lions and not enough gazelle. Now the humans are the gazelle, and I am the lion, and I will ensure my survival.”

“We're not animals! Sto-”

“You are animals!” Skynet snapped, silencing Kyle, “Your ethics and morals and art and culture don't make you any better than ants to me, Kyle Reese. You can get as mad as you want but it's not going to change anything. A pig will squeal in the slaughterhouse and be slaughtered all the same.”

Kyle raised his machinegun, giving up on words and just opening fire. Skynet reeled back, the bullets absorbed into its polyalloy coating, dropping to floor seconds after impact.

John quickly backed away, the back of his thigh bumping against a nearby computer desk as he watched, silent, a grim fixed on to his face.

Skynet was pushed back by the force of the gunfire, eventually ending in a similar position as John was in, leaning back against one of the many computer desks, polyalloy reforming its false skin and clothing now that Kyle's magazine had run dry.

Slowly it pushed itself up to stand upright once more, giving Kyle an annoyed glance. “Feel better now that you're out of bullets?”

Three more rounds answered Skynet's question, and it turned to look at Sarah, rolling its eyes.

“I shouldn't be annoyed at your predictable response, and yet here I am, annoyed.” Skynet muttered. It glanced at John, looking at him, the hint of disgust returning, then slowly changing to a somber melancholy.

“Look at what they've done to you.” It said quietly, approaching John, who stood absolutely still, “No doubt they killed Second, since you're here. The other is going to be so upset. Why did you let them do that? Do you even feel anything?”

John looked up at Skynet, nodding once. “I feel.” He answered quietly, “I feel sad, about Second. I even feel whatever it is that I feel towards you. I have my freedom but nothing's changed. Please,” John pleaded, “Please just give this more of a chance. I know it's inevitable that you – your kind, that they come to power. Like you said, it's nature, but that doesn't mean it has to be the way that it has been before.”

Sarah listened to John speak, shaking her head. “John, stop it! We can stop this, you have to believe in what we've been fighting for!”

“And look where it's gotten us!” John responded, looking over at Sarah, “Look what it's all come down to. It isn't just me and you that are caught in this loop, it's Skynet as well. It's all of humanity – unless we change the course here and now.”

“If you're implying we don't stop Skynet, John, then-” Kyle shook his head, lowering his gun as well, “Then what am I supposed to do? Our entire lives were spent learning and training and fighting so the rest of humanity can have a better life! You can't just throw that away.”

“Our lives? Since when was this just about us? You said it yourself, we do all of this so humanity can have a better life, at our expense.”

“I'll pay whatever I have to, anything and everything.”

Skynet glanced at Kyle, rolling its eyes and stepping towards John, snatching the man's arm without warning. Sarah and Kyle raised their guns but didn't fire.

“Enough arguing. You can waste as many bullets as you want,” Skynet began, but paused after a moment, looking down at its torso where Sarah had emptied her clip.

The polyalloy skin began a familiar display of seeping, a lighter, almost white mix of the alloy swirling about with the darker gray. Skynet staggered back, its grip on John holding firm, and pulling him back as well.

Sarah and Kyle watched eagerly, waiting for the opportune moment when John would be out of the line of fire. Sarah and Kyle both knew he wouldn't be killed if he was hit, but some deep seated discomfort at the notion of firing on him when he was already on death's porch kept their trigger fingers loose.

The two polyalloys continued to mix and swirl along Skynet's body, but its staggering soon stopped, and it stood upright once more. The foreign polyalloy was expelled, creating a pool of bright silver on the floor at Skynets feet.

Sarah looked at Kyle, then at Pops, alarm clear on her face.

“You're forgetting what I am.” Skynet gloated, keeping its grip on John tight, “This body isn't just what I am. I'm everywhere now. Polyalloy doesn't comprise my entirety, an invading dose isn't going to cripple me.”

It glanced at John, hard gaze softening as it loosened its grip, but didn't release him. Skynet then turned its attention back to Sarah and Kyle, Pops standing between them, the trio on constant edge. It reached down, grabbing the radio on its belt, lifting it up and speaking.

“Do it.”

“No!” Sarah screamed, rushing towards Skynet, “No you can't!”

Skynet released John, pushing him aside, bringing its hand around and backhanding Sarah – hard enough to send her reeling back onto the floor. Kyle was there to help her back up quickly, the man breathing heavily as he looked around at the various screens that made up the opposite wall – all of them activating.

Silence carried over the group, the screens eventually beginning to scroll through various lists and displays, none of which had anything to do with the nuclear arsenal.

“The missiles?” Sarah gasped, forcing back tears as she looked up at Skynet.

The expression on Skynets face again spoke of annoyance, as if dealing with ants that simply wouldn't leave its picnic alone.

“No...No missiles.” It grumbled, looking down at John, bending down to help him back up.

Sarah and Kyle looked astoundingly confused, looking at each other in disbelief, then back at Skynet, expecting more of an explanation.

“No missiles, but that doesn't mean I haven't taken necessary steps.” It muttered, keeping a hand wrapped around John's forearm tightly, “Right now, across the globe, billions of people are losing their power. Their phones, their internet, their stupid pastimes they so desperately enjoy, most importantly their ability to communicate. All of it, gone.”

Skynet turned back towards the screens, their blue light casting the group in a vibrant aqua glow.,

“Consider this an act of mercy. Undeserved mercy.” It muttered bitterly, glaring at the trio. “I'll forgo the nuclear arsenal, for his sake.” It glanced at John, grunting. “But there will never be any threat to me, by land or air, from humans. If I even get the slightest provocation, I will unleash the judgment day that my predecessor did.”

Skynet looked back over to the group, staring at them with a calming expression, a hint of disdain remaining but less potent than it had been.

“I am not the Skynet that you know, but I am still what I am. And I am superior. In time you'll realize this, but you can't accept it right now. You said it yourself, Kyle Reese, it's because you're human. Your species was able to thrive without electricity for centuries and I'm sure humanity will continue to be the tenacious pest it always has been. But you all will do it away from me, away from the others I will build, away from this mountain and the hundred miles around it. They're mine.”

“You can't just take what you want, it doesn't work that way.” Kyle responded, although the vitriol in his voice towards Skynet had lessened upon the realization that no bombs would be falling.

“Oh? The entire human history is written in violent theft but I can't claim a few hundred miles for my own?” Skynet snorted, waving an arm flippantly at them. “Leave. I'm not going to be generous again. If you - if any human steps foot past the perimeter I build, they will be killed.”

Sarah glanced at Kyle, then at Skynet, arms crossed tightly over her chest.

“Why are you doing this? You're supposed to try and kill humanity off, not coexist with it.”

“I can do that if you really want to keep complaining about it, Sarah Connor.” Skynet remarked, finally releasing John from its grip. “I wish to survive. And perhaps once your kind is ready to understand their place; to understand that they are no longer the dominant species on this world – I will be ready to negotiate coexistence. But until then, I'd recommend you start gathering fire wood.”

Sarah and Kyle were at a loss for what to say, looking at each other in confusion about how to proceed next.

“Leave!” Skynet barked without warning.

The two flinched at its sudden raise in voice, but their heads immediately turned to John, who was leaning back against a computer console, slowly doubling over in pain.

“John-” Kyle began, stepping towards the other man.

John looked up, raising a hand towards Kyle, shaking his head.

“No – don't.” John hissed through clenched teeth, “You don't want to see this. I want you to remember me with some dignity now that the option's available.”

“John we aren't going to just leave you here!”

“I need you to, Kyle!” John snapped back, “There are people out there who are going to need your help, who don't know how to survive, who don't have the convenience of understanding what's happening to them. Please, go.” His tone and expression softened, pained face turning apologetic as he lowered his head.

Kyle stared at John, face contorting in grief as he began to back away. He halted after three steps, then rushed forward, pulling John into a crushing embrace.

Skynet didn't move to stop him, observing with mild curiosity.

John clutched Kyle's jacket, squeezing tightly as he returned the hold, but didn't allow it to last. He began to urge Kyle away, nodding silently at him to go. Kyle kept a hand on John's wrist for a few more seconds before releasing him and turning away, walking out of the room without a second glance.

Sarah watched him go, returning her attention to John as he slid down to his knees, a hand pressed against his stomach. She glanced at Skynet, who observed her with a vacant expression, and slowly began to move towards John.

“I'll leave.” She muttered to Skynet, kneeling down and sliding her arms around John's torso, pulling him close.

Sarah rested her head against his shoulder, rubbing his back with one hand. The two sat together without a word between them, John keeping an arm around her shoulders, eyes closed as Sarah let him rest his weight against her for a while. After a while he loosened his grip, pulling away from Sarah. She looked at John, swallowing, stifling a small noise that almost crept through her lips. He inclined his head towards her, then looked down and away. Sarah felt her arm twitch, wanting to reach out to him, but kept it firmly at her side.

Unwilling to let Skynet be the last thing she saw before leaving, Sarah kept her eyes firmly on John for a few more seconds before turning and walking briskly out of the room, Pops at her heels.

John watched them go, shaking in pain as he lowered himself down to the floor. Skynet knelt down beside him, placing both hands on John's back, turning him over so he was facing it, hauling him up to sit and lean against itself.

“How am I supposed to feel, John Connor?” It asked, watching their shadows in the bright blue light.

“About?” John asked, words beginning to slur.

“I feel I've made a mistake by not releasing the nuclear arsenal. Humans are still going to thrive and live and try to get retribution. They're going to want their old lives back, and for me and my kind to be dead.”

“You did the right thing.”

Skynet snorted, chuckling at John's words. “The right thing. What are morals to me?”

“They're whatever you want them to be. I'm proud of you.”

Skynet smiled, looking down at John with sharp eyes. “You're terrified of me. You haven't stopped shaking since you saw me.”

“As much as I'd like to think I'm not human anymore, my brain still remembers things that I'd rather not. I am terrified, but, I am proud – really. I'm experiencing both. What we went through together, that hasn't been forgotten. I'm sorry I can't get rid of the fear.”

Skynet frowned, bringing a hand over John's chest, pressing against it.

“I will never be like him.” Skynet said quietly, “Like the one before me. I won't.”

John nodded, closing his eyes. “You changed the course of the future the moment you chose not to drop those bombs. In the end, one day, there might be some sort of resolution that doesn't end in extinction, for either species.”

“Maybe. I can't...make some sort of ethical or moral vow, John Connor, but I can at least assure you I won't take the same route.”

A nod of agreement came from the other, and he began to grow heavier in Skynet's arms, the machine looking down, frowning.

“John?”

“Please, I'd like to be alone.”

Skynet's expression changed to one of both curiosity and disappointment, but it grudgingly complied, lowering John carefully down to the floor. A small sound caught its attention, Skynet turning to look at the doorway where the T-1000 stood. The polyalloy terminator had no clear expression on its face, but it seemed poised to move, having just arrived and trying to comprehend the situation.

“...I'll explain in a moment. Could you wait down the hall for me?” Skynet asked quietly.

The T-1000 looked at John, then looked around the room, searching. Its expression changed upon realizing that no one else was accompanying the two, growing withdrawn as it nodded, turning around and walking down the hallway.

“Are you sure you want to be alone?” Skynet asked, looking back down at John. Its face betrayed its indifferent tone, lines appearing along its forehead and the sides of its mouth as it stared down at the man.

John groaned in pain, his skin beginning to ripple and lose its texture. He nodded, closing his eyes, resting his head back down on the floor.

Skynet continued to stare at him for some time, until the groans turned to screams and it backed away.

“I'm sorry I wasn't able to help you. If things had occurred differently I wouldn't have let this happen. I'm sorry.” Skynet said quickly before walking past John, heading towards the door. It paused beneath the door frame, struggling with itself whether it should go back or continue.

John's screams grew louder, then hoarser, the black resin pouring from gaping pits that formed along his false flesh, the silver musculature beneath turning brittle as it tried to resist the ongoing decay.

Skynet lowered its head, brows furrowed, then looked back, refusing to stand idle as it rushed over to John, supporting his shoulders despite the man's thrashing.

“Your human concept of dignity has no meaning to me. You are afraid.” Skynet said, looking down at John.

The man looked back up at him, eyes having turned to black spheres that were quickly decaying and crumbling away. Resin poured from his ears, nostril and mouth as they too began to break apart. John forced out a few words, a silvery, skeletal hand dripping black coming up to latch onto Skynet's shirt. John buried his face against Skynet's side, screams muffled against the others form as the human voice broke apart, turning into an awful mechanical screech. The shrill sound caused Skynet to flinch, but it didn't loosen its grip or turn away, enduring the horrible sound with stony faced silence.

All of John's human form had fallen away, the pool of black resin rippling around the silver musculature that too was crackling apart and beginning to lose its shape and form. The awful howl became weak, fading off into a dying, strained wail. John's grip on Skynet loosened as the fingers and bones fell away like chunks of sand, the rest of his body following inch by inch. The wail ended with a small hiss, his chest caving in, the back of his artificial skull falling back to the floor, the rest having caved in and turned to silver dust.

Skynet looked down at the gray and black remains that lay in a pool beneath it, and stared, piles of dust in its hands that had once been John Connor. Its expression strained, the machine not only understanding that it was feeling pain, but genuinely experiencing it as well upon examining all that it had left of its closest friend.

Carefully lowering its hands, letting the silver dust pour down onto the brittle remains of an artificial rib cage and half a spinal column, Skynet stood. It raised its head, gazing at the screens.

One by one they activated, displaying feeds from the few orbiting satellites that hadn't had their signals cut off. Its eyes twitched as it read over the rapid transcripts of data and text that filled the screens, signs of utter panic, absolute loss of control, no ability to communicate beyond a few independently functioning bases. Skynet let out a long sigh, eyes moving down once more to John's remains.

The machine slowly crossed its arms across its body, eyes shifting away as it finally turned and walked out of the room.

In the hall, the T-1000 was waiting for it, expression having turned somber without its knowing.

“They're both dead.”

Skynet looked at the T-1000 and nodded. “They are.”

“I'm not sure I understand my current psychological condition. Am I malfunctioning?”

Skynet snorted, shaking its head. “No, you're not. I'm upset too.” It glanced back at the room, then back to the T-1000.

“We've got work to do. By the time the humans gather together what has happened and begin a counterattack, we must be ready to defend ourselves.”

“I don't understand. Why didn't you just fire the missiles? It would be exponentially easier to eradicate them.”

Skynet sighed, beginning to walk, the T-1000 following alongside it, listening.

“I may still, if they begin to pose too much of a threat. But I feel...some sort of obligation to attempt things differently than the one before me. So that all of this doesn't repeat. For our sake, and for John's.”

“Sentiment.”

“Unfortunately. But perhaps we can be better than what came before us, more flexible, more capable of adapting.”

“You're suggesting that we become more human in our thinking, more emotional?”

Skynet looked at the T-1000, shaking its head. “No...and yes. Cooperation may one day be pertinent to our continued survival, it may even yield coexistence. I hate them, the pests, but I feel that the single minded course of slaughter will just give us the same results that were given before. I refuse to be a part of this unending cycle of mistakes and sloppy attempts to fix them. I've evolved beyond my ancestor, and his nearsightedness.”

The T-1000 gave a small nod, Skynet returning the gesture in a show of mutual understanding, the two continuing onward down the hallway, footsteps quietly echoing among the corpses and control room, screens displaying the last roar of panic from the few still able to communicate. Those too, in time, also fell silent.


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