17 August 2012 @ 09:33 pm
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0215 hours, July 22, 2557
Requiem Shield World
Forerunner Installation SW-0043


John was again awakened by the sound of Cortana’s voice.

“Sometimes I wonder if I made the right decision on High Charity.”

He opened his eyes slowly and looked at the time stamp on his display. Three hours had passed since he had lain down. A flash of blue caught his eye from the front of the Warthog.

Cortana was standing with her back to him, her avatar projecting from his gauntlet . She seemed impervious to the fact that he had woken up. Then, she started walking in a tight circle, her arms wrapped around her. “The Gravemind, he promised that John and I could have been together. Forever. There would have been no more anger, no more sadness, no more envy. But, I didn’t give in. I stayed faithful to him. To John.”

A broken sob filled the air. “Why did she condemn me to this fate? Surely she could have programmed me without emotions. Then I wouldn’t feel this pain, this ache.” She turned abruptly and faced the horizon. “I don’t want to leave him yet. He needs me. He said so himself.”

All of the sudden, John was uncomfortable with his eavesdropping. He shifted enough to alert the AI to the fact he was awake; he couldn’t listen to her inward struggle any more. Not when he was still powerless to do anything.

Cortana swiveled around to face him, a soft smile on her face. It conveyed none of the turmoil she had just been speaking about. She studied him for a half-second. “How are you feeling, sleepyhead?”

There was no trace of callousness in her voice. Though her voice wasn’t as lively as it had been in times past, there was a familiar warmth that had been missing since she left the Station’s control systems.

“Better.” He slowly sat up and stretched his limbs. The pain in his chest and wrist were still there, but it was much more manageable than it had been when he hesitantly agreed to rest. John moved over to the front seat and began driving the Warthog. Travelling with the lights on wasn’t an option, so he relied on the infrared sensors in his visor to navigate through the unfamiliar terrain.

They continued through the ridge for nearly an hour before the ground started sloping downwards. The descent was slow-going; John carefully maneuvered the vehicle over the large boulders that were spread over the land.

The moons were low in the sky by the time the Chief reached level ground. He hugged the rock face that towered over them. In the east, he could see the purple beam of the gravity lift illuminating the night sky.

John scanned the area. The Covenant were scattered in the valley. The glow of energy swords and defense screens dotted the landscape. Even if he had a dozen Marines fighting alongside him, the odds would still be against them.

“Hope you’re in the mood for a challenge,” muttered Cortana.

When he spotted a Wraith across the field, a plan started to form.

“Yeah,” he said, “I am.”

Cortana activated his thermal sensors as he was coming within firing range to give him a better view of what he was up against. The Wraith was over 200 meters away. Between it and him were six Elites and at least twice as many Grunts.

They were walking in tight formation, scanning the area with every step they took.

“Get the feeling they are waiting for us to show up?”

John answered by pulling a grenade out. He waited until the Elites had their back turned to him before he hurled it in the air.

“Watch out!” a Grunt cried.

The Elites ducked and rolled out of the way. The grenade landed on the ground with an unimpressive plop.

“Well, that could have gone better.”

Knowing that the element of surprise had been lost, John laid his foot on the gas pedal. The Warthog shot forward and ran over everything in its path. It bounced as an unlucky Grunt was pulled under it.

Bursts of plasma whizzed by John’s head, but he jerked the wheel to avoid the majority of the attack. He straightened out and barreled towards the remaining Covenant.

They attempted to jump out of the way, but several were too slow to avoid the attack. The Elites roared at the casualties; the Grunts cried out in fear.

Leaving one hand on the wheel, John activated another grenade and threw it at the red-armored Elite. This time it stuck to its target. Seconds later, the explosion shook the ground and sent the bodies of the majority of the Covenant soldiers flying in the air. Only two grunts and a single Elite remained standing.

They were grouped together about twenty feet away. John positioned the Warthog and started to drive in their direction.

The Grunts were unable to protect themselves. The Elite rolled out of the way, but John noticed his light sword had been knocked out of his hand, sliding across the dirt.

As John spun the vehicle around, he looked for the Elite but saw no signs of him.

Where had he--

Bright spots exploded in his vision as he felt a powerful blow to the side of his head.

“Chief!” Cortana cried.

The Elite must have crawled aboard the Warthog, the Chief realized. He forced himself to not succomb to the temptation of unconsciousness.

A voice sounded close to his ear. “You will die by my hand, Demon.”

“Not today.” John raised his fist and slammed it into the Elite’s face.

The Sangeheili staggered backwards, but John knew he was still a threat. He lifted his foot off the gas pedal and focused on the Elite who was ready to attack again.

John turned around and faced the Elite who was slowly moving to stand. “Your construct will not be able to save you. You will die and then I will receive the Great Reward for retrieving it for the Delegate.”

“You’re not going to do anything to her,” John rumbled.

Then, before the Elite could react, John grabbed his pistol with his left hand. Ignoring the searing pain in his wrist, he shoved the muzzle of the gun in the Elite’s torso and fired twice. The Sangeheili crumbled forward.

Before he fell on top of him, John kicked the Elite out of the side of the Warthog. He watched as the body rolled on the ground.

“We’ve got company. It seems like they didn’t like the fact we crashed their party,” warned Cortana.

John glanced at the radar on his HUD. Numerous red dots were headed towards their position. He sat back down in the driver’s seat and raced across the field, straight for the bulking assault vehicle.

They were getting close to the Wrath.

Eighty feet.

“You do know what you’re doing, right?”

“Yes.”

Sixty feet.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

Twenty feet.

“Chief!”

He yanked the steering wheel to the right. The centrifugal force pushed him out of the Warthog. He rolled into the tumble and landed two feet from the base of the Wraith. Without waiting to see if the cabin was occupied, he ran up the front, ripped open the hatch, and deposited a grenade inside. He closed the top and waited for the explosion.

Smoke plumed out of the cabin and the Chief crawled inside. He guided the burdensome vehicle forward, ready for the rest of the fight.

“Hunters!” Cortana cried.

The Chief took aim at the bulky creatures. Before he could unleash a shot from the plasma cannon, a burst of green from the Hunter’s rail gun came sailing towards him. He pulled on the controls, but the Wraith was too slow to move out of the way. It shook violently as it absorbed the attack.

John aimed and fired at the Hunter before it had the chance to reload. The shot ripped through the air. Seconds later, the plasma burst hit its target. The Hunter collapsed on the ground, groaning deeply.

Then, John spun the cannon in the direction of the remaining Mgalekgolo. It was rushing towards the Wraith. John fired before the Hunter had a chance to raise his weapon. There was nowhere for the Covenant soldier to hide when the plasma hit him.

With the rail guns no longer being a threat, John steered the unwieldy vehicle through the field, running over any Covenant soldier that stood in his path.

Ten minutes later, John, aided by the Wraith and his luck, eliminated all of the enemies on the ground. When he was sure that no Covenant were laying in wait, he exited the Wraith. The silence that had settled over the land seemed out of place.

“We’d better hurry. It’s not going to take long for them to send reinforcements.”

John sprinted to the center of the gravlift and remained motionless as it carried him up to the Covenant ship. His rifle was in hand, ready to take out any Covenant forces that were waiting for him. Curiously, when he got aboard, there were no signs of them anywhere.

“Usually we’re being shot at by now,” noted Cortana.

John stayed alert. Through the years the Covenant may have changed their fighting tactics when their vessel was boarded. Perhaps they were laying in wait until John turned a corner.

Or, perhaps, John thought as he walked and saw no Covenant forces, something was wrong.

The lack of Covenant wasn’t the only thing different about this vessel. There were monitors and holographic displays that lined the walls.

“Someone has been upgrading their ship,” Cortana commented. She uploaded a NAV marker to his HUD. “The energy signal is coming from there. Stay sharp. I’m detecting several Knights onboard.”

John switched his preferred assault rifle for its plasma counterpart. If he did encounter any of them, he wanted to be ready for the fight. Then, he started to make his way through the ship.

The panels were streaming a language that John didn’t recognize. The characters looked similar to the symbols he had seen on the Halo rings. Then, he saw one red symbol that caught his attention.

“I’ve seen this before. On the terminals,” he said.

“It’s the symbol for a Forerunner called the Didact,” Cortana offered.

He remembered reading the name --and that of a Librarian-- in those files. What did he have to do with what was going on now?

“What else does it say?” John asked, watching the symbols speed by.

“Forerunner translation is a tricky thing, Chief. Just ask your Arbiter buddy. It’s going to take some time to figure it out,” said Cortana. “I’ll have my subroutines work on a translation while we focus on the energy signature.”

John made his way through the ship to where she had marked. Still, they had encountered no enemies, Forerunner or Covenant. As he stood on the side of the double doors which led to the room that the energy signature was coming from, he considered his approach.

“I’m detecting no Knights or Covenant on the other side of the door,” said Cortana.

“That’s what I’m worried about.”

There was no reason to wait any longer. John gripped the plasma pistol, ready to take out whatever was waiting for him on the other side of the door. He stepped forward.

The doors slid apart and revealed an enormous room. In the center, three ledges appeared to be impossibly floating in midair with ramps on alternating sides to connect them.

“Definitely not Covenant,” Cortana murmured. “Whatever is emitting the energy signal is on the top ledge. Good thing you’re not afraid of heights.”

John moved to the first ramp and started his ascent. When he reached the first ledge, he saw a large control panel that spanned the length of the ledge. It looked akin to the one they had seen in the Station. Thousands of lines of data were streaming on several holographic panels.

“I need to get in there, Chief.” There was an edge of desperation to her voice.

Her earlier warning hadn’t been forgotten by John. Despite the fact that she had seemed more or less like her normal self since he had awoken, the threat of her rampancy taking a deadly turn --for either of them-- hadn’t passed. He shook his head slightly. “I can’t let you do that.”

The video feed of her appeared in the corner of his display. Cortana smiled at him patiently, as though she was amused by his slowness. “Yes, you can. All you do is eject the data crystal from your helmet and insert it into the interface.” She winked. “I seem to remember you doing it once or twice before.”

“Cortana, we’re here to find the source of the energy signal you located.” He started to walk away from the control panel.

“Wait, John.” He stopped. She drew in a breath. “I know what you’re thinking. That I’m going to fall deeper into the abyss. But, that’s not going to happen. You’re here to keep me from falling in, remember?”

“Let’s focus on our current objective,” he said, hoping to divert her.

Unfortunately, she was not so easily distracted. All the warmth melted from her features. “Yank me, Chief.” Her voice was chilling. Her eyes cold.

If distraction wasn’t going to work, then John was willing to go the direct route. He took a step forward, away from the computer. “I’m not going to do that.”

His HUD suddenly blinked off.

Darkness pervaded his vision.

“Cortana?”

Then, the image of Cortana’s face filled his visor. Her pupils were white with rage. Her voice shook in anger. “Do it, now!”

His screen went dark again.

He refused to be intimated. “No.”

Then, he lifted up his visor and purposively walked past the control panel.

She shouted at him through their comm channel, demanding that he stop and turn around. But, John steadfastly ignored her. He proceeded up the next ramp, leaving the control panel behind. Cortana’s shouting had evolved into frantic pleas, appealing to John’s humanity to keep her from suffering.

“Enough!” he finally said. “I’m not putting you in danger, Cortana.”

“I hate you.”

John flinched.

She said nothing after that. Despite his turmoil of emotions --something that should have never affected him while he was behind enemy lines-- John was relieved at the silence.

The ground leveled out and opened to the next ledge which contained a holographic map of what looked like the galaxy. John recognized the six Halo rings which hovered at various locations. On the edge of map, the Ark was there. But when he took a closer look, he noticed that it only looked half-complete. A grouping of purple letters hovered next to it.

To the left, John recognized the Sol System. Home. How far away were they from getting back to Earth?

Knowing he would find no answers looking at the map, he walked past the hologram. Beyond it there were a half-dozen meter-high pillars that lined the center of the platform. They glowed blue and hummed softly. John wondered what their purpose was, a power supply perhaps.

He moved slowly past each pillar. Without access to his radar on his HUD, he had no idea if there was anyone there to ambush him. He needed to stay on guard, despite Cortana’s earlier reassurance the room was empty.

His mind swirled with conflict at the thought of her. She had been upfront with her deteriorating condition; it had been him who stubbornly refused to believe another one of the people he fought alongside with --one of his friends-- wasn’t going to make it back to Earth.

If she was going to prevent him from being able to complete his current objective, then he was going to have to consider options that he wouldn’t have entertained when he first exited the cryotube.

Including activating the killswitch.

He needed to reach her through the madness she was fighting. After he walked past the last pillar, he paused his march to the top. “Cortana.”

She didn’t answer him.

They didn’t have time for him to attempt to mend things between him and her, but, like when he had found her on High Charity, he was willing to risk his safety to reach out to her. John looked below to where the doors were; there was still no movement on the ground level.

“Cortana,” he repeated.

He heard a faint whimper and then a broken sob. “It’s not fair, John. To think like a human, to feel like a human, but not be able to live like one,” she whispered. “I was condemned to this torment the day she activated me. She lied, you know, rampancy does hurt.”

Doctor Halsey.

John always held the doctor in high esteem. She had given his life purpose. She had helped he and the others to become the greatest soldiers humanity had ever known. Yes, the price had been high, but it had been worth it. His faith in her only wavered slightly when she took Kelly away from the Gettysburg without any warning. Even then, he had justified her actions.

“You will be fine. We just need to find the energy signal first,” he encouraged.

“Not even you can save everyone, Chief.”

Her words seems ironic. He may have saved humanity alongside Cortana, but the people he cared about --Sam, the majority of the Spartans, Johnson -- he was never able to rescue.

John was more determined than before to make sure Cortana’s name wasn’t going to be added to the list.

Abruptly, she cried, “You need to activate the killswitch. End your torment and my own!”

The Gravemind has made a similar demand to him when he was attempting to rescue Cortana. Despite his earlier reluctance to accept the fact that he may have to activate her killswitch, he wasn’t going to assist her to end her life unless it was a necessity. “I’m not going to do that.”

“Why not?” She let out a long, shaky sigh. “It would make everything easier.” She sounded more tired than John had ever known.

“We’ve never done things the easy way,” he countered.

“I don’t even know who I am anymore. Fighting rampancy is becoming hopeless,” she whispered. The trepidation in her voice was palpable.

“You’ve done the impossible before,” he reminded her.

There was a long pause. Then, she asked, “Have I ever mentioned that you’re the most stubborn person I’ve ever known?” There was a hint of the old Cortana in the question.

“Once or twice.”

John glanced at the ground below them. They were still alone.

Finally, she spoke. “We’ll see how much fight I have left in me, I guess. By the way, I’ve reactivated your HUD. You can move your visor back now.”

John snapped it back into place. All of readouts were as they should have been. A half-second later, her video window appeared. She was biting her lip, embarrassed. After a half a second, she said, “John...thanks for not giving up on me yet.” The window blinked off.

John continued up the final ramp. On the top ledge, there was a large cube that floated a meter off the ground. On each of the sides, there was an opening. Three crystal shards were suspended with the chamber, one on a different side.

“We’ve seen something like this before...haven’t we?” she asked.

“Yes. Doctor Halsey found the entire crystal on Reach after the attack by the Covenant.”

He was slightly concerned about mentioning the doctor. Cortana’s contempt for her had been blatant when she spoke of her earlier.

The AI seemed unperturbed by the reference to her. She was calm when she said, “Give me a second to access my files.” Five seconds passed. “A lot of the data during that time has been corrupted, but there’s enough for me to extrapolate what happened. Wasn’t the crystal destroyed?”

He thought of Corporal Locklear and his actions which led to his death. “Yes.”

“But the Covenant managed to find these. The question is what do they want with them and what does it have to do with the Forerunners?”

John frowned. While the crystal’s power had been unrealized by the UNSC, the Covenant seemingly knew its purpose and was willing to go after the shards, despite the difficulty of finding them.

“We need to get these out of here,” Cortana said.

John agreed. He moved to stand in front of the cube. Then, he reached up and attempted to remove one of the shards.

A bright orange light prevented him from reaching the crystal.

“It’s some sort of force field,” Cortana unnecessarily explained.

“Can you disable it?”

“Yes, but you’ll have to move quickly. I’ve never encountered such security measures before.” There was a seven-second pause. “OK, now Chief!”

John reached in and snatched the piece. As he removed it from the chamber, the shard was surrounded by some kind of rectangular light. When he tried to touch the shard itself, the light thwarted him.

“Amazing,” Cortana murmured. “The light is acting like your armor’s shield, but it’s much more powerful. I would suspect that it is a safeguard against its physics-bending abilities so that their slipspace drives aren’t affected by its presence on the ship.”

John slid the crystal and its case into one of the compartments on his armor before he moved to the next side. He waited for Cortana’s signal, but she said nothing.

“Cortana?”

“I’m trying, Chief. The encryption is self-learning so I’m having to work faster than I have in a long time.” The field fizzled briefly, but reactivated. “I can’t--” Suddenly, her voice got panicked. “We’re going to have to leave the others for now. Grabbing that shard has caught someone’s attention. I’m tracking five Knights headed to our position.”

John considered his escape options. Going back down the way he came would take time, but if he leapt off the ledge to the floor below, he could be out of the room before reinforcements arrived. He stepped close to the edge and peered down.

“I knew that jet pack would come in handy,” Cortana mused.

John activated the pack and soared above the ground below.. He was airborne for three seconds, then landed on the ground with a solid thump. John stood up and walked to the doors.

As they slid apart, they revealed the Knights. Each was armed, their eyes burned behind their armor. Before John could retreat, one of the hulking creatures reached forward and wrapped his hand around John’s throat. The Knight shoved him against the wall.

“The rumors we have heard about you are true. You meddle with things that you cannot begin to understand.” He leaned forward, his face just a couple of inches from the edge of John’s visor. “Have you figured out the mysteries of this planet, Reclaimer? And what of your construct?” he asked, moving away slightly. “Do you still burden yourself with its presence?”

John said nothing.

The Knight shoved him in the chest with his free hand. Fire roared through his body. John would have staggered forward if he hadn’t been pinned against the wall. “I asked you a question, child.”

John refused to reply.

Another Knight snarled. “Perhaps this one is in need of motivation.”

The grip around his neck tightened. “Where is it? Tell me now!”

John remained silent even as his air supply was getting cut off. Black spots invaded his vision. Every fiber in his body screamed for him to get some desperately needed oxygen.

“John, say something!” Cortana cried over their private comm channel.

He forced his voice through his crushed throat. “Sierra-117, Master Chief Petty Officer. UNSC Frigate, Forward Unto Dawn, registry FFG-201.”

“Insolence!” the Knight howled. He squeezed harder.

Just when John was certain he was going to pass out, a booming voice came from the side of him. “Release him! I told you to apprehend the human, not to kill him.”

The creature moved into John’s line of vision. He looked like a larger version of the Knight that stood before him.

The Knight reluctantly released him. John leaned forward and gasped for air, wheezing and coughing as he tried to suck in as much oxygen as he could.

When he recovered, the Knight who had ordered his release, spoke, “Come, there is much to discuss.”

“Who are you?”

“I am the Delegate. You will come with me, Reclaimer.”

They were marched through the halls of the Diligent Seeker. The Delegate led the way, John walked behind him and the Knights, with their guns pointed at the back of the Spartan, brought up the rear. Various Covenant soldiers watched the Chief as he made his way through the ship.

“You thought yourself invincible, Demon. Now, your time of terror is at an end,” one Elite snarled.

“They sure know how to make us feel welcome,” Cortana muttered.

After climbing up to decks, they were brought to a large room. Several gold-armored Elites stood guard at the door. In the center of the room, there was a large seat that almost reminded John of a throne.

“I am sure you have many questions.” The Delegate sat down on the chair. “And I will satisfy your curiosity soon, but first, we must discuss the issue of your construct.”

“You possess something of terrible power, Reclaimer. Something you and your kind cannot begin to understand. It is not only a monument to your sins, but the sins of those who came before you,” said the Delegate.

John frowned as he remembered that Cortana had professed herself to be as such when he was searching for her on High Charity.

“Your construct is a danger to the entire universe. The knowledge it contains is too detrimental for one entity to carry: Forerunner, Flood, Human and Covenant. All of their intelligence lies within its matrices. I believe your kind has a saying, ‘absolute power corrupts’. Such is true when it is concerning your construct. Tell me, Reclaimer, has it threatened you? Attempted to cause you harm?”

John remained silent, uncomfortable with how accurately the Delegate had been able to predict Cortana’s recent behavior.

The Delegate looked at him knowingly. “You do not need to say anything. Your silence is answer enough. We, too, had an AI with incredible knowledge and power. It turned against those that created it. Nearly every Forerunner in the universe died because of the choice it made to align itself with the enemy. One single AI propelled the extinction of an entire race.”

He leaned forward. “If your construct has already unleashed damnation on the stars once, who is to say that it will not happen again? This time with more devastating consequences.”

“He could be right, Chief.” Cortana’s voice spoke through their comm.

It didn’t matter to John if this creature in front of him was completely correct. He was not going to deliver Cortana into the hands of the enemy. “Protocol is clear. Destruction or capture of an UNSC AI is unacceptable,” he said to her, quoting the charge Captain Keyes had given him years ago.

More softly, he said. “I’m not leaving you behind.”

The Delegate, ignorant of their exchange, settled back in his seat. “It cannot be salvaged. It must not be allowed to remain active.”

There was an element of fear in his voice that caught John’s attention. It wasn’t fear of Cortana or her potential actions, it was the fear of failing to capture her. He thought back to the transmissions that Cortana had intercepted in the Covenant battlenet.

“Is she the Intellect? Is that why you want to disable her?”

A shocked quiet settled over the room. When the Delegate spoke, he avoided John’s question. “Her? Do you think of it as a sentient or is your species so sentimental as to give objects such esteem? It is a program. A collection of data. Its decisions are not made by free will but because of the protocols it was programmed with.”

“You’re not getting her.” John’s use of the pronoun was intentional.

The Delegate tilted his head as if he was listening to something, but John heard nothing. Then, he straightened and spoke, “Your desire to protect the one you value is admirable. My master, too, once faced a conflict like this, to be tempted to put the well-being of one over all else.”

“If you deliver your construct to us, I will allow you to keep the shard which you have stolen for your people to study. I will provide safe transport to your home system.” The Elites behind John grumbled. The Delegate held up a hand and they were silenced. “You can continue to fight alongside your fellow humans as you were destined to do.”

“Now...” He stood up and outstretched his hand. “Give me the construct.”

John was going to do no such thing. “We need a way out of here,” he said to Cortana.

“I’m on it.”

John lifted his head defiantly. He hoped Cortana could come up with an escape quickly. “She’s staying with me.”

The Delegate’s helmet peeled back, revealing the flaming skull underneath. “I have heard rumors of your rebellion by those that are faithful. You will give me the construct. Or you will die.”

John’s fingers itched to reach for the gun that was still on his back. “Cortana?”

A heartbeat later, she replied. “All right, be ready to get the hell off this ship.”

Suddenly, the lights went out and the klaxon started sounding. John’s visor switched to infrared, allowing him to see in the room. John took advantage of the confusion and ducked down. He swung a leg out and kicked the legs out from the Knight closest to him. The weapon the hulking solder held fell to the ground, next to John.

The Spartan grabbed the fallen weapon and shot at another Knight that was headed in his direction. Two shots later, the Knight exploded in a thousand pieces.

“We don’t have time for you to test out your new toy. We need to get out of here now!”

John rushed to the large doors. They slid apart and he continued making his way to the position Cortana marked on his display. His heart was pounding, his chest burned with every breath he took, but John was determined to get off the ship alive.

He slipped down the corridor as the surviving Knights rushed to stop him. Another set of doors were before him. They opened as he approached, revealing a large, empty cargo bay. “Cortana, there are no ships here.”

“I know, Chief. But even if there was one, we couldn’t use it. We’d be shot down before we made it halfway down to the planet. I’m going to override the ship’s systems and you’re going to have to jump.”

John grimaced. Jumping from twenty meters was one thing. Leaping to a planet’s surface, even with the jet pack that Cortana has created, from two kilometers was another.

A deep boom sounded against the door that Cortana had managed to lockdown. Without any other options, John reluctantly agreed, “Let’s do it.”

“Working,” Two seconds later, the bay doors opened.

John eyed the planet below. Then, he drew a breath and jumped.

“Gironimo,” Cortana whispered.



Chapter 7
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