19 August 2012 @ 09:33 pm
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0320 hours, September 18, 2552
Cairo Station, ODA-142
Orbital Defense Platform, Earth


“There are some in Section Three that would prefer it if you and the Master Chief were no longer assigned to work with each other.”

Lord Hood leaned back in his highback chair as he looked at Cortana. The AI’s avatar was projecting from the small holotank on the edge of the admiral’s desk.

She pressed her lips together and raised an eyebrow. “Do they have something against success?”

“Officially, they’re concerned that you and he present a ‘disconcerting ability to combine combat techniques and data infiltration methods that were unanticipated’,” Lord Hood said.

“So,” she smirked, “they’re jealous.”

The admiral frowned. “Don’t be so quick to dismiss them, Cortana. They have an incredible amount of sway with High Command.” He leaned forward, setting his hands on the desk. “It was a good thing that the Master Chief felt compelled to give his testimony to the effectiveness of the neural link. I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to convince HighCom to allow you to remain with the Master Chief on my own.”

Cortana’s brow furrowed for a fraction of a second. She didn’t know anything about any testimony the Chief had given.

It had been nearly three days since Cortana had last seen the Chief. When the Gettysburg had limped into the Sol system and arrived at Earth, she and the Spartan had been whisked to different sections of the UNSC immediately. Cortana had met with High Command to divulge the fact that the Covenant knew of Earth’s location; John had been ordered to report to ONI to surrender his armor and the data it had collected on the Halo ring.

The next day, Cortana had been ordered to report to the Section Three building on Earth. There, she had been put through numerous tests to insure the data she had amassed on the Forerunner installation hadn’t caused any issues in her core processes. It must have been when she had been isolated from the UNSC database that John had talked with the admiralty.

Quickly, she hacked into the transcriptions of the meeting between High Command and the Master Chief. There he had given his reports of everything that had happened after the Autumn had fled from Reach, including the discovery and the destruction of the Halo ring. At the end of the debriefing, they had asked him for his opinion about the interface the two of them shared.

The Chief had been far more assertive in his contention that the neural link was a benefit to the working of the MJOLNIR armor than Cortana would have suspected. A burst of embarrassment coursed through her. She hadn’t known the Chief to be a person who was prolific with praise, and yet, she had the proof in the data she was accessing.

Maybe there was more to the man behind the visor than she had originally thought.

“Well,” she said, deceptively calm, “he’s very convincing when he wants to be.”

“As of 0200 hours today, the Master Chief has been reinstated as your human custodian. The two of you will be stationed on the Cairo platform until we know what the Covenant are up to,” Lord Hood declared.

“Does he already know?”

The admiral nodded. “He was given his orders when Section Three was performing their final diagnostic on your systems.” He looked at the tablet on his desk before casting a worried glance at Cortana. “Speaking of which, we need to talk about about the massive amount of data you’ve acquired since Reach.”

She had suspected that he was going to bring the discouraging report up before she had a chance to leave. It wasn’t something she was eager to discuss.

“I am aware of that, sir.” She crossed her arms, disguising the worry she felt as annoyance. “I also am aware that I passed every test and inspection that was thrown at me.”

“For now. ONI is concerned.”

“My data consumption levels aren’t anywhere near dangerous levels,” she countered. “I’m not going rampant, if that’s what they’re worried about.”

“I know that, Cortana. That’s why I authorized the order for you to remain active, despite their misgivings. But,” he warned gently, “if there are any signs of data degradation, I will be forced to alter my command.”

There wouldn’t be any reason for him to change his order if Cortana had anything to do with it. “I understand, sir.”

He gave her a curt nod. “Then, it is my pleasure to clear you for active duty. Welcome aboard the Cairo platform, Cortana.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Dismissed.”

It didn’t take her more than a fraction of a second to figure out what she was going to do with her newly given freedom.

She was going to find the Chief.

He was in his quarters, but based on his brain activity, he was still awake. Cortana checked the time: 0330 standard time. She considered the option of leaving the Spartan alone; she knew better than anyone how much John needed to catch up on his sleep. Other than the few hours of rest he had managed to get when they were travelling back to Earth, the Spartan hadn’t slept since the first night on the Halo ring.

She quickly disregarded the idea to give him privacy; she missed being around someone familiar, someone who treated her like she was more than a complex program that could be dissected. Since Doctor Halsey had inexplicably fled the Gettysburg with Spartan-087, that only left John.

Without wasting another process on the subject, Cortana transferred her avatar to the small holotank in his room.

She found him sitting on the edge of a bed in the private quarters Lord Hood had arranged for him. The blankets on the bed were untouched, confirming to Cortana that she hadn’t interrupted the Spartan.

With his armor still being held by the ONI techs, he wore standard PT gear. His dog tags hung on his neck; the light from her avatar reflected off them. It seemed strange to the AI to see him in a standard issue black t-shirt and sweatpants. Cortana knew he would have preferred to be in his armor, but until ONI was able to retrieve all of the data from his suit, he would be forced to wear the atypical attire.

He turned his head in the direction of the holotank. She took in his appearance. His emotions were, even without the visor, well-hidden. Curiosity at her unannounced early morning visit couldn’t be found on his face.

But exhaustion was.

He had managed to keep up with her the entire time they were on the Halo ring and the subsequent rescue mission on Reach. Even when he had been critically injured after the plasma explosion on the hull of the Ascendant Justice, he had pushed forward with a determination that impressed the AI.

But, it seemed that even the Chief had his limits.

Briefly, she considered making an excuse to leave. He was more tired than she had previously thought. Just as she was going to open her mouth, he started speaking.

“Cortana,” the Chief greeted evenly. He didn’t sound bothered by her impromptu visit. In fact, it almost seemed as if he was expecting for her to show up.

She didn’t know why that flustered her.

Suddenly, her desire to leave fled. “Did you miss me?” she asked, hand on hip, lips curved up in a slight smile.

He avoided answering her question and asked one of his own. “Did you receive your orders from Lord Hood?”

“Yes,” she answered simply. “I reviewed the debriefing between you and Admiral Paragosky. Honestly, Chief, I didn’t know you had it in you to be so verbose.”

“You deserve credit for what you did.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Not everyone is eager to share the glory with a computer program.”

“You’re an AI.” The way he said it implied he saw a difference between the two.

But, they were the same. Yes, she had algorithms that allowed her to “think”, but the reality was that she was a collection of data and memories --stolen ones at that-- and was, in her essence, a highly complex computer program.

And one day --a day that might come sooner than she had originally anticipated-- her program was going to cease to function. She frowned as the conversation she and Lord Hood had floated through her thought processes.

Why was that bothering her? She was fine! She had run the diagnostics herself.

“Cortana?”

Cortana met his questioning look reluctantly. She couldn’t keep the truth from John, not after everything they had been through during the Halo campaign.

She forced the words from her lips. “The techs at ONI are concerned with my data consumption from the Halo control systems. I don’t know how much you know about the way a smart AI works...”

“Doctor Halsey told me a little on Reach.” Now, he seemed more alert than when she had first come in.

“Then you already know I was sentenced to a short lifespan the day Doctor Halsey activated me. That length of time can be significantly shortened if I assimilate massive amounts of data,” explained Cortana.

“Like the Halo control systems?”

She nodded. “Exactly like that.”

He looked directly at her. “How long?”

“They aren’t sure. Neither am I. I would guess maybe three or four years, at best. The less data I process, the longer my program will remain functional. But asking me not to process data is like asking you not to breathe,” she replied. “It’s not going to happen.”

Cortana looked away from his observant eyes and focused on the dog tags that were dangling from his neck. She knew she couldn’t avoid bringing up the undeniable truth any longer.

She bit her lip and met John’s gaze again. “There will come a time in my life when I won’t be the same as I am now. It’s a condition called rampancy.”

She outlined the downward spiral she would be forced to endure -- melancholia, anger and jealousy -- when her program started its inevitable decline. Cortana explained the rampancy process as factually as she could, trying to keep her emotions concerning the subject in check, but she detected a waver in her voice when she was finishing her explanation.

“My jealousy will become so intense, I will try to harm the very people I have been programmed to save.” She raised her eyes to John. His face relayed none of his inner thoughts; his expression was as passive as it had been when Cortana had first entered the room.

She had discovered --and circumvented-- the virtual termination code that Doctor Halsey had planted in her kernel days after she had been put into commission. Despite the fact that she had managed to eradicate the life-threatening code, her pragmatism compelled her to create a killswitch that would only be able to be activated when she reached the jealousy stage of rampancy.

Still, if the past three days had shown her anything, it was that her killswitch wasn’t to be trusted with the majority of those at the UNSC. The techs in the ONI building had seemed a bit too eager to find signs of catastrophic failure in her core processes.

John, however, was different. Cortana knew he could be trusted.

She drew in a long breath. She met his attentive look with a determined one of her own. “When I reach that point, you have to activate my killswitch.”

His brow furrowed, the only outward sign of a crack in his emotional armor. “There has to be another way,” he said, shaking his head slightly.

Now was not the time to indulge in a conversation about the theorized but never proven stage of metastability. It didn’t seem fair to offer a shred of hope to an irrevocable situation. For either of them.

The AI shook her head solemnly. “There’s not.” She wrapped her arms around herself as if the action could protect her from the future she was fated to. “I need you to do this for me, John. Please. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”

Resignation flashed in his eyes. Cortana knew he was going to agree to her request before he spoke. His shoulders dropped slightly as he nodded reluctantly. “Only if there is no other option.”

“Promise me.”

A long silence stretched out in front of them. Finally, he gave her a curt nod. He looked her directly in the eye. “I promise, Cortana."


Chapter 2
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