"Why do you want me to find Cortana?" René drew her legs up to "sit" cross-legged in midair, dress-blacks shifting to become the traditional Sangheili robes of office. It wasn't the first time she had done such a shift of wardrobes, as she was trying to find out what self-image she was going to portray.
"Because I need her to help us before she's retired."
"John, you know how many breaches that I'll have to make in order to merely locate her? Nevermind trying to contact her. That in itself is liable to get me transferred back into a human body."
"Is that possible?" Leader asked softly, afraid that the humans had actually mastered that technology.
René looked at him, nodding silently. "It's happened before. Aged civilians who had volunteered to become informational AI . . . if they misbehaved . . . if they breached their boundaries that they had agreed to . . . were replaced into a flash-clone. We're not like the AIs that are created post-humus; we have no program."
Leader nodded in return, looking at Tyr. She sighed, then whispered, "I'll have myself flash-cloned if that happens. You deserve a Spartan body, at least."
René's face dropped . . . then picked back up in a sad smile. "Tyr . . . thank you. That's the most wonderful thing anyone could have said to me."
"I would have offered, but I doubt that you'd appreciate it as much," John muttered.
"John, no offense, but I would rather face termination than live out the rest of my days in a male body."
Jira barked a laugh, then grinned widely. "I heartily agree."
Stepping forward a pace, Arbiter asked, "What of finding Cortana? Was she not upon this ship when we were at Earth a week ago?"
"That's the problem. She was yanked without even Keyes knowing about it," John replied. "Trust me, I asked her. I had wanted to talk to Cortana about my Spartans becoming the team AIs, and when I had gotten Raziel instead, with him saying that Cortana was unavailable, and off-ship . . . well . . . imagine my surprise when I spoke with Keyes, ending up bringing her the news. She spoke with UNSC command . . . and got the 'polite' answer that it was strictly none of her business."
René bristled. "I don't give a damn if you're an Admiral or anyone else . . . Miranda doesn't deserve to be spoken to like that. I hacked into Raziel's databanks, and witnessed that conversation."
"Doesn't that fall under the boundaries thing?" Leader asked solemnly, rubbing at his head and neck to try to stay awake after their long day at the training course.
"Nope. Because I know where Raziel is, and I know that if I'm contacted upon it, Miranda will let them know that I have free reign over her ship. Just like Ian does."
Asha walked into the room, bearing a tray of steaming mugs. "It seems that you and the Captain are upon good terms," she commented, making sure that the humans got their coffee, and that her kind got their favorite stimulant drink; they called it hev'ar.
"She and I had a lot of correspondence before I was fronted with the proposal that I become the Spartan team AI."
"That explains the first-name basis," John interjected, raising his gaze from his mug. "But back upon subject. Will you do that for me?"
René sighed, still in her "mid-air" cross-legged pose. Then with a nod, she replied, "I will. Just . . . don't let them put me back into the tank, Chief. I-I couldn't . . ."
Standing and thumping his hand against the holotank in a strict matter, John growled, "Spartan, I forbid you from that line of thought. What is the primary objective a Spartan holds?"
"Winning," René whispered.
"This is a direct order, Spartan René-079." He hit the side of the holotank again, growling, "I will see to everything if it comes down to you being transferred into a human shell again. Until that point, you are to perform to the best of your ability."
"Answer your commanding officer properly!" John barked in the voice he used upon the rookies, the new kids, the ones whom he scorned until they had done something to get his respect. Not acts of bravado or false heroism, but an actual courageous act of selflessness, one that saved lives.
The others watched on in silence as John stood over the holotank, over the shuddering form of his former Spartan. They knew that he knew what he was doing. She hugged her shoulders, looking up at him with heartbreak over her face. "Chief . . ."
"You wanted this. You got freedom. Now stop this pity-party. You once took on a squad of Mendez's goons, one against seven, and you won with your mind. With predicting their strategy and their tactics. Is this what you've become? Someone who can't even stand up to the challenge of merely finding another AI? I should have you put back into a human body, if this is what I've gotten myself into."
"Sir . . ."
"Spartan, you will stop this pity-party if you are to continue to serve as my team AI. I will have you stationed upon the ship and will take Raziel–"
"Raziel couldn't find his way out of a paper bag!" René snapped, standing and glaring up at John. "Furthermore, he couldn't stop me from hacking into his databanks! What makes you think that he'd be any good to you on the field?!"
Tyr looked at Arbiter, who had that curious Sangheili grin upon his face. He held his hand up to his face in the mimicry of the humans' gesture for silence, masking it by taking a swig of his hot drink.
"He has an edge . . . like you once did."
"I have that edge! I still have it! Dammit, Chief, you try being in that suspension fluids for over half of your life, remembering what it had been like outside . . . what it had been like to live."
"You're wallowing in your own self-pity, and I will not allow that upon my team! That is your direct order, Spartan! Do you understand me?"
"Sir, yes sir!"
"And I couldn't give a rat's ass about if you agreed with me or not about it," he said in a low tone, blue eyes glaring death at the hologram.
"I understand, sir."
"Then get your ass moving, and find Cortana."
"Did that while talking, sir."
She gave on-ship co-ordinates . . . and when they matched up with the very room they were in, everyone, including René, blinked and paused. Tyr looked around at all those present, then at the Master Chief. He held up a small box the size of an old-fashioned mint tin, having pulled it from his pocket. Cortana appeared in a miniature hologram on the top, arms crossed over her chest with a proud grin upon her face. "That's more like it, René."
"Wait . . . you had it the entire time?" Leader asked, standing and bristling. "You willingly put René upon the line for something so trivial?!"
"Not trivial, Special Operations Leader," Cortana said, angling to look towards him. "Remember that I'm now talking from experience. When you're working with Spartans, you're going to have to do things that go against some programming at some point in time. The reason behind that is because you have to, so that the mission is fulfilled. This was training for René. If she didn't locate me, then there would have been a harder test later on. Do you understand this?"
While she had been speaking, Leader's bristling had fallen away, and he had begun to listen to this reasoning with an open mind. When he nodded, Tyr spoke up. "Arbiter, you knew."
Everyone but John whirled to look at the Arbiter. He nodded, still smiling. "I did. I was with John when he had spoken with Miranda about this mission of sorts."
"Then . . . who did she talk to when she had spoken to an Admiral?"
"That was staged, and I had gotten Raziel to manufacture and adjust that false memory, leaving it where you could find it."
"But . . . I couldn't initially find that file . . ." René said, frowning.
"Of course not. That, too, was a test," Cortana said, smiling. "Dejá had done the same to me, when I was training." She looked up at the Spartan holding her projector. "Mind plugging me back in? I've hit the twenty-five percent power limit. Any less and I'll go into a standby mode."
"Oh, no . . . we wouldn't want that," Tyr commented dryly. "That would mean that you'd be silent, wouldn't it? No, that's unacceptable."
"Tyr, with all due respect, shut up."
John plugged Cortana back in, laughing quietly. He watched as Cortana and René shared space for one moment, glancing at each other before disappearing completely, leaving the group without a nosy AI to poke comments into their conversations. Looking up at the group assembled around the room, he said, "And I have the newest orders for our Spartans and our Sangheili."
"Which are?" Tyr asked through a yawn, the coffee not having taken any effect.
John indicated to Arbiter that he tell them. "We're stationed on Earth, but remaining ready for deployment when the moment comes to silence the Prophets."
Leader growled in pleasure, his eyes narrowing dangerously to half-closed slits. "How I long for the day. How I will enjoy that day."
"Won't we all, brother."
"But . . . the Covenant will be no more, correct?" Tyr asked, watching as the female Sangheili moved to sit behind their mates, curling up against their backs to rest their heads upon the right shoulder of each. Somehow, she saw this as ceremonial, and it had to be significant.
"That would be correct," Leader replied, not moving an inch from his seat upon the pillows where he had sat after hearing Cortana's logic about the test.
"So . . . we fight against the remainder of the Covenant . . . then what?"
"Then . . . then we do as my brother and our mates have just agreed with; what we have been discussing for many a long night," Arbiter whispered softly, his voice just above a growl. "Then we will do as we were taught to do; we will lead the Sangheili into their own again, and will ally ourselves with the humans. We will not enter a covenant, binding us to the humans, but we will swear to an agreement of honor, where both parties are considered equal." He indicated the doorway, where Mir had appeared, carrying Yssa very, very carefully to place her upon a cushion, careful of the brace around her knee. He sat behind Ysabelle, positioning himself so that her leg would be propped upon his own comfortably, and his arms were loosely wrapped around her waist. "Where my own kin shows the trust that now lies between the Sangheili and human races."
"Trust? Lust is more of the appropriate term, Uncle," the younger woman said with a lopsided, tired grin.
"I won't argue that," the Arbiter said with a chuckle, reaching up to brush his fingers along Asha's face. "This is a new age we are entering into," he whispered. Standing, he walked over to John, lowering his face to look into the man's blue eyes. "And we need alliances like never before." Taking in a deep breath, the nonhuman closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them again, resuming his gaze with the pale man. "I hated you. Even recently, I hated you. You represent everything that I had fought against all my life. You had personally destroyed that which I had been assigned to protect."
"Halo," John whispered.
"Yes," came the breathy reply. "And I hated you even as we stood among comrades whom had not been fortunate enough to have adapted to the augmentation that so easily you adjusted to. I hated you for showing them to me, for showing me your weakness." Arbiter sighed. "But . . . now I see why you did that. You trusted me, even when I could not bring myself to trust you . . . Is there any way, brother-in-soul, that you can forgive that in me, and accept my support in this new age?"
John bowed his head, then sighed and looked up at the Arbiter, saying, "You know . . . I knew that you truly hated me all this time, but . . . humans are all about second chances." Drawing in a deep breath, he answered, "You got it, Arbiter. You're going to need all the support that you can get. Not all humans are enthusiastic about coming to terms with a former enemy."
"While we are on the matter of announcements," Asha said after a long pause where John and the Arbiter just stared at each other, the tension slowly draining from their bodies and temperaments as the minutes had moved on, "I have one of my own."
Arbiter tore his gaze away from his now-adopted brother, his face a mask of inquisitive confusion.
Kidafan'asha smiled and said into the silence, "I have to be excused from any military action. I am with child, and it will be due in a year's time."
And the usual chaos ensued after a birth announcement, women squealing with glee, men looking embarrassed and yet happy, and the father going up to the mother, embracing her as if she were made of porcelain, a new ferocity rising up within him to protect.
And, as is usual, there will always be something odd spoken into a moment of silent wonder. This time, it fell upon Mir to ask it. "But what of all the rituals?"
The two looked at him for one long moment . . . then each other, and grinned. Arbiter embraced Asha again, sighing and resting his chin upon the top of her head. "We shall arrange it within the week."
"I shall start those preparations," Leader said, standing. "Mir, Yssa, John and Tyr, please come help myself and Jira make ready for a celebration. We will need your help in making things run smoothly."
Those who could stand and walk did, while Mir picked Yssa up again. With a grin, Leader turned and asked, "Did you want it upon the ship, or upon Earth?"
"Earth," the two whispered as one voice. Arbiter smiled at his brother, bowing his head. "Rtas . . . I thank you for helping me."
"It is what an elder brother always does for the younger. We both had helped each other when we were mated once before." Rtas 'Vadumee smiled for his younger brother, then bowed his head in return, seeing Jira smiling at him tenderly. "Come, then. Let's inform your daughter and granddaughter of this wonderful news."
"Where have the others gone?"
"To celebrate with Captain Keyes. She will be overjoyed to hear of this."
"I agree," he whispered, taking her hand in his in the human gesture and custom, one that he truly enjoyed, and walked with Jira'kirene into a new age.