07 August 2012 @ 10:00 pm
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0635 Hours, August 27, 2557
Control Center, Inner Chamber
Requiem Shield World, Forerunner Installation SW-0043


“He’s dead.” Cortana’s proclamation barely carried over the cacophony of sounds coming from the chamber that was housing the Void. “There was nothing anyone could have done. The Delegate knew exactly what he was doing when he attacked him.”

Together, she and John had watched the assault on the Didact and the subsequent attack by the Librarian while she rushed to create the Void as quickly as it was safely possible. John had wanted to go out to help the Forerunners, but Cortana couldn’t risk circumventing the lockdown in the Inner Chamber and potentially collapsing the Void.

An awkward silence blanketed the room as they watched the Librarian lean her forehead against the Didact’s helmet. John turned away abruptly. Cortana lowered her gaze as she tapped on the holographic interface.

After a minute, she typed in the last string of commands. The Void expanded to a diameter of a meter across. “It’s ready. Just open the hatch, then slip the crystal inside. The mechanism in the chamber will deposit the crystal into the Void. Then it will be just one more time that we will have saved the universe.”

He nodded. Cortana monitored the readout as he opened the lid on the container that held the crystal. He picked up the crystal. Immediately, it grew into its original size and started to glow a deep orange.

With a flick of his left hand, he opened the hatch. Then, he started to lower the crystal to deposit it in the cradle, but a force field appeared, blocking the opening.

“Cortana?”

Her fingers flew over the controls as she attempted to figure out the problem. “Give me a second.” She accessed the control center’s main grid and frowned. “We’ve got a problem. Our recently deceased friend, the Delegate, added a defense protocol to the primary system. It won’t allow us to destroy the Source. I’m going to have to override it.”

Almost as if in response, the Void started to grow exponentially. “I think we have another problem.”

She cursed under her breath. “Have I mentioned that I really don’t like Forerunner AIs?” She looked up at John while her fingers continued to move rapidly over the panel. “The Void can’t be stopped until the crystal is placed in it. If I can’t contain the Void, you need to leave. I’ll make sure the Source will get destroyed.”

It would mean sacrificing the life she had just been given, but it was the only option available.

“You would die,” John said bluntly.

She didn’t respond. She had already died once, she didn’t like to think about doing it again.

“I’m not going anywhere.” His voice was as determined as she had ever heard it.

She relaxed, despite the danger they were in. Of all the Spartans, she was glad that she chose the one that was the most stubborn. “Somehow I knew you were going to say that.”

The blackness grew and pushed against the thick alloy, causing it to crack. A loud hiss followed by a series of pops came from the chamber. The casing creaked under the enormous pressure of the Void.

They were running out of time.

Finally, Cortana located the hostile code and began to delete the file. She glanced at John. “Get ready on my mark.”

Smoke escaped from the console as the chamber attempted to relieve some pressure. She slammed her hand down on the holographic button. “Now!”

He shoved the crystal in the hatch and closed the lid shut. The lights flickered several times before they were completely extinguished. Less than a second later, Cortana saw the lights from John’s helmet turn on.

She watched as the crystal travelled through the narrow passage that led to the Void. The crystal expanded and retracted. It morphed into a variety of shapes and colors. As it reached the fray of the Void, the darkness seemed to fold in on itself it attempt to consume the crystal. Moments later, the Void had devoured the crystal entirely.

The ground shook and the casing around the chamber cracked. Cortana held onto the control panel to keep her footing. The implosion rattled the control console. Sparks flew from the display.

Then, suddenly, the Void was gone.

Seconds later, the lights returned back to their normal state. The readings from the panels showed that the crystal had been destroyed.

“We did it.” There was a smile in her voice. “I’m uploading a memory-wiping worm to purge to Schism’s control systems. Some well-placed grenades should take care of the machinery.”

Her smile faltered when she looked out the window and saw the Librarian who was still gripping the Didact’s body. “It never gets easier. Death, I mean.”

“No. It doesn’t.”

He led them out of the Inner Chamber to where the Librarian was. “You did well, Reclaimers.” She sounded tired. “Thank you. Both of you. You have allowed time to remain as it should.” She glanced down at the Didact’s body.

Cortana looked at the still body. “I never told him thank you,” she whispered.

“I am certain that he would tell you that no thanks is required because he was doing the Mantle’s work. He wouldn’t want you to live in regret. You should go and meet your people. They are coming,” the Librarian said.

She was right; Cortana detected several dozen human life signs in the control center. They must have been waiting for the shield to collapse which faltered after the death of the Didact.

A nervous feeling reintroduced itself. She didn’t know where she fit in with the UNSC any longer. Was she to be considered a civilian? A soldier?

“Come on, Chief. I can’t wait to submit the after-action report for this mission.” She moved away from the Forerunners.

As they started to leave, she thought she heard the Librarian start to weep softly.

She and John exchanged few words during their trek back to the surface. So much had happened since she had been reborn and there was so much she had yet to experience. Despite her vast knowledge and intellect, she felt overwhelmed.

They rode up the gravlift. As they approached the top, she heard numerous footsteps. “The calvary has arrived.”

When the lift stopped a man --Chief Thomas Lasky, she recognized-- and a group of Spartans were waiting for them. “You didn’t think to tell me about them?” she asked John via a private comm.

“I thought you would have accessed the Infinity’s records,” he replied.

“Been kind of busy saving the universe,” she retorted.

“Chief,” Lasky greeted before taking in the sight of Cortana. He looked her up and down. “This isn’t the Librarian. You found another Foreruuner?”

“No.” John hesitated. He glanced at her before straightening. “This is Cortana.”

Lasky ogled her for a full ten seconds before looking heavenwards, but he didn’t say anything about her. “And the crystal?”

“The crystal has been destroyed, the Schism has been taken offline. The machine needs to be dismantled,” John replied.

“I’ve got a couple of Spartans that have been itching to blow something up. Eli, Jennifer, get down there and blow the hell out of that machine,” Lasky ordered.

Two Spartans stepped forward. “Yes, sir!”

“What about the Didact?” Lasky asked.

“He was killed by the Delegate while Cortana and I were disposing of the crystal. The Librarian is with the body right now,” reported John.

“Miller, get to her position and see if she need anything to tend the body.” He let out an exasperated sigh as he looked back at John and Cortana. “Come on, you two.” He cast another disbelieving look at Cortana. “I can’t wait to see Buck’s reaction to you, ma’am.”

The ride back to the Infinity was tense. Lasky and the half dozen Spartans with him kept casting suspicious glances at her. John had remained silent, probably building his case for why she should be allowed onboard as a passenger. Cortana did as she always did when she had no objective to complete: she read through any data she could access.

As they made their way to the ship, she read through the Infinity’s reports. Though she could only access data at a fraction of the speed she had been able to when she was an AI, she was still able to read through enough reports to get a clear picture of what had happened since she and the Chief had lost contact with Earth.

By the time they were halfway back to the ship, she had determined the major divergences between this timeline and the one she and John were from. When she saw the file with information about the other Cortana, she made the uncharacteristic decision not to access the data; part of her didn’t want to know what had happened to the Cortana from the altered timeline.

Lasky finally spoke, breaking the silence. He looked at her, studying her face. “The Chief says the Didact restored all of your data and transferred it to this new body. It is his belief that you are Cortana.”

She raised an eyebrow as she fidgeted with her helmet in her hands. She had taken it off as soon as they had stepped onto the Pelican. “That’s because I am Cortana, Thomas. The algorithm in Requiem’s systems were able to repair most of the damage to the data that was stored in my matrices. Then, the machine he created was able to convert the data processes into human thought.”

“So you remember everything?”

She smirked, despite the tension in the cabin. She suspected she knew what the Petty Officer was hinting at. “If you are referring to a poorly thought out bet that you made with Sergeant Johnson on the Cairo platform, yes.” She lowered her voice. “But don’t worry, I won’t tell any of the crew.”

Redness stained his cheeks as he looked away from her. “Well, that settles it for me. You really are Cortana.”

When the Infinity came into view, Cortana leaned towards the window. It was so enormous. The damage it had taken had been significant; Cortana could see exposed floors even from this distance. Still, there was no denying that it was an impressive vessel. As the transport moved forward, she saw a company of soldiers, including Commander Buck, standing at the foot of a loading ramp.

She looked away and faced John who seemed to be watching her from behind his helmet. “Now would be the time for some encouragement,” she said to John through their private comm.

“Everything is going to be fine.” Then, he did the most peculiar thing. He patted her forearm stiffly. If it hadn’t been so blatantly clear how awkward he felt doing it, the gesture would have provided Cortana with a bit of comfort.

Minutes later, the transport stopped. Lasky stood up and waited for Cortana and John to move to their feet. “Let’s get this over with,” he muttered.

Cortana couldn’t have said it better herself.

The rear hatch opened. Commander Buck stood on the ground with a scowl on his face.

So much for a warm welcome.

He barely waited for them to stop walking before speaking. “Which one of you want to tell me what the hell is going on here?”

“We will, sir,” John said, speaking for himself and Cortana.

It took the better part of twenty minutes for her and John to outline everything that had happened since her original program had terminated. When they had finally finished, the Commander ran his hand through his hair. “So, what am I supposed to do with you? You certainly aren’t an UNSC AI anymore and I don’t have the authority to make you an official officer.”

Cortana opened her mouth to reply, but it was Lasky that spoke first. “I believe, sir, that allowing her to come onboard would be permitted via the Expansion Initiative.”

Cortana quickly accessed the ship’s systems to learn about the new regulation. The Expansion Initiative was a protocol established by High Command before the Infinity left Earth in 2553. It said that any non-hostile lifeform could petition for safe passage on the vessel. It was that very Initiative that Lord Hood used to authorize the Librarian to become part of the Infinity crew.

Buck blew out a breath of air. “I don’t think High Command was thinking something like this would happen, Lasky.”

The young man shrugged. “That’s not your problem, sir.”

Buck looked at Cortana briefly then nodded. “All right, we’ll go with Lasky’s idea. Provided you pass the medical and psych tests, you’re now part of the crew. As a civilian. Though,” he said, giving her a pointed look, “I doubt I’d be able to keep you out of the ship’s systems.”

“I’ll be on my best behavior, sir,” she promised.

Buck stepped forward, extending his hand. “Welcome aboard the Infinity, Cortana.”


Chapter 16
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