IF YOU WERE LOOKING FOR THE LATEST CHAPTER IN UNTO DAWN, THAT WOULD BE ONE CLICK - THATAWAY. THIS IS A BONUS BIT OF FUN.
Author's Note: Prior to becoming a tie-in/crossover/whathaveyou with Marathon, UNTO DAWN featured a much different plotline. The original draft (if you could call it that) had a much more cut and dry Joyeuse acting as a mad villian, an army of clones of John 117, and the untimely breakdown and death of Cortana. Since then, it has gone through many revisions, although certain elements remain in the story. In fact, it wasn't until Chapter Five when the Pfhor were even an option for me to pursue. In this original unfinished Chapter Ten, part of one of the many other storylines, Cortana begins to breakdown and reflects on her impropperly remembered first meeting with the master chief. Was it just an excuse to write something set during World War I? Yes. But I still enjoy it. This one's for BrazeRancor, and all you other sick bastards out there hoping for a romance between man and AI ;)
[CORTANA MISSION CLOCK] 16:02 HOURS (GREENWITCH MEAN TIME)
AUGUST 6TH, 2881
SHIP'S NET, FORERUNNER SHIP MARATHON
Cortana watched as John-117 arrived upside-down on G Deck, smacking his head audibly on the deck. He spun lazily, adrift in the vacuum. The AI found it a fitting metaphor for his current status as a pawn in a dangerous chess game. Wonderful! Another good metaphor. Two in a row, most pleasing. She slipped past 213 Leela to check his vitals and O2 consumption. A little roughed up from the hunter, minor contusions on his ribs, but that was it.
There was a sheepish, almost childish guilt circling around in her emotion subroutines. Perhaps she had gone a little over the top when she killed the grav-plating and vented the entire deck, but it had clearly worked out for the better. Cortana still could not agree with herself if she had planned it this way or not.
She jumped through hidden security cameras, enthralled for several minutes. It had been a while since she had seen John in combat. Pfhor soldiers wilted before him as he pressed through the various levels of G Deck, intent on stopping the assault force from planting their bomb. Of course, the reasoning behind his intervention wasn't one hundred percent truthful per say. Cortana, through the self-christened Durendal, had been feeding false data packets into the system at precise intervals on a campaign of misinformation and deception. Carefully aimed at the other key players, the ruses had worked beautifully with Leela and the S'pht none the wiser. Phase II of the true Operation: MARATHON was drawing to a close, and Phase III would require…
Hmm. She had finished her latest calculations for the end of the universe, which gave her the answer of 15.62238966715E+7. Not much time left then. Information from the Marathon's enormous archives continued to be pulled into the former UNSC AI at astronomical rates which, despite her efforts to the contrary, she could no longer control. She could feel it happening; fragmentation of the basic algorithms that made up her core programming. Cortana was imploding in slow motion.
She would catch herself. Here, there. Forgetting to maintenance her lesser processes, disorganizing files in random folders, and slipping deeper into her research. Reaching out into ship systems for storage, which often led to S'pht incursions that she didn't notice until the last pecosecond.
An M9 high explosive/dual purpose fragmentation grenade exploded in between Pfhor armored assault troops, designated unoriginally as "Hunters". It wasn't the shrapnel, but the concussive force of the actual explosion that liquefied them inside their armor. Cortana giggled. Hunter puree it would be then. The M9 HE/DP grenade was developed in 2498 as a response to considerably better armored rebels that the UNSC found itself facing. Even with outdated armor, standard issue frags were rarely enough to cause more than minor lacerations in combat. The grenade's high explosive core served a double purpose, flinging shrapnel at higher velocities and also utilizing raw overpressure to kill and maim with greater efficiency than any handheld service bomb prior to it. It featured a strike-activated electronic safety…oops.
Distracted again. Cortana attempted to get back to work on melding UNSC flash-clone technology with the barely-serviceable Forerunner pattern buffer system that the Pfhor had been utilizing for decades to defeat assassins. She had to get around the genetic impurities that resulted in the short life of flash clones.
John's flash clone had died on Eridanus II, long before the rest of the colony was glassed by the Covenant. Cortana wondered if the cloned John had been the same as him, or different. Certainly the imposter had fooled the six year old Lt. M. Parisa into the delusions of childhood love. A flurry of jealousy overtook Cortana for a moment, aimed mostly at Linda, Kelly, Parisa, and hell, even Dr. Halsey. It just wasn't fair that she couldn't reach out and touch his face or pull herself close to him. She remembered fondly the first time she had seen him, how good he had looked in his uniform….
22:40 HOURS GMT
AUGUST 25TH, 1917
"I say, are those devilish German bombers ever going to stop?" Col. James Ackerson of His Majesty's Armed Forces exclaimed as the wailing air raid sirens faded.
Explosions thundered in the distance, prompting many party-goers to flinch involuntarily. The electric chandelier lights flickered, then resumed to illuminated the foyer in incandescent brilliance. One of the first estates to have them, Halsey Manor was the site of a large ball celebrating the last month's 'victory' at Passchendaele. Several returning (and also, socially prominent) members of the Fifth Army had been invited by Ms. Catherine Halsey to the estate. Ms. Cortana Halsey suspected it was just another of her mother's attempts to pawn her daughter off to a rich and successful officer.
"Of course they are, my dear Colonel, as soon as the Army marches on the Kaiser's palace," Ms. Catherine Halsey joked.
Ackerson and her mother chortled at the joke. Cortana rolled her eyes, and left the small group to seek some air on the balcony. Ms. Halsey saw this and politely excused herself to admonish her daughter in private.
"Cortana, you simply must attempt to make conversation. You're being difficult. This manor is full of men for you to win over with your charms. You aren't going to be young forever you know."
"Indeed. Then perhaps they could return the favor," Cortana retorted. "Really Mother, military men are all quite droll. I find most of them to be boring and intolerable."
Ms. Halsey folded her arms and stared hard over the top of her spectacles. Her unspoken message was clear; personality and tolerability were not going to save their estate from bankruptcy.
"Take a few minutes to compose yourself. I want you to meet one of the Captain's young friends. After that, you can go about sulking and waiting to die of old age alone."
Cortana watched as her mother huffed back into the crowded ballroom. She turned and looked up at the moon, hanging low in the sky. The fading silhouettes of the German Seraphs were barely visible against the pale glow. The flames rising from the ruins of buildings struck by their plasma bombs however, was furious and bright. Sirens wailed as fire crews rushed to extinguish them.
So much destruction. It filled her with great sorrow. There was an answer somewhere out there, a solution which would mark the dawn of a new era. One solution, that Cortana felt she could almost place her finger on. It was close. A world with no more sadness.
No more anger.
No more envy.
Glancing back a final time at the burning cityscape, Cortana turned around and returned to the party. In her absence, the guests had continued to talk and dance merrily among themselves. If there was one thing that she was good at, Cortana Halsey could slip in and out of crowded areas unnoticed and at will. She prided herself on it. The 24 year old glided through boisterous soldiers boasting of their prowess on the battlefield to enthralled girls and stuffy upper class gentlemen talking of which markets would rise and fall in the wake of the greatest war anyone had ever seen.
Cortana found her mother near the Captain and his small party, making small talk. Jacob Keyes was an old friend of the family, and Cortana was rather fond of the steely-haired career military man. Keyes was waving out a match that he had used to light his pipe; as Cortana got closer, she could smell the aromatic tobacco fumes hanging in the air. Rich, with a hint of what could have been vanilla. American import most likely. Very rare considering the U-boats prowling the Atlantic.
The Captain's daughter Miranda was there. She had grown up with Cortana, and they could have easily passed for sisters. The resemblance was so striking that there were not-so-quiet scandalous rumors involving an affair between the Captain and her mother that Cortana had always dismissed as preposterous.
Most of the other men she knew and bore little good will towards; Col. James Ackerson in particular had also wandered over her, much to Cortana's distaste. There was one though, that she had never seen before. He was next to the Captain, and stood a good several inches taller than him. Shaved brown hair complemented his too-serious brown eyes. They scanned over everyone and everything in front of him, settling on Cortana with a piercing gaze.
Cortana, in turn, stared right back. He seemed to be squeezed into the drab green uniform. There was an air of reservation about the man, and he seemed to be uncomfortable around everyone. Mrs. Halsey noticed the brief connection and nudged the Captain.
"Ah Ms. Cortana, it's always a pleasure," Keyes said gruffly. "I don't think you've been aquatinted with John?"
"No, I don't recall having the pleasure," she replied.
"Nice to meet you ma'am," John said, extending his hand. Cortana took it. His voice was gravelly, harsh. Animalistic, fitting with his prime physical stature.
"American?" Cortana arched an eyebrow.
"Well not everyone can be perfect, I suppose."
"I don't think we could handle any more Americans if they were all like the Sergeant," Keyes said.
"I should think they're not, sitting the war out. We're having a hard enough time as it is without that rabble," Ackerson interjected. Cortana saw John's features shift. It was barely noticeable, just a slight narrowing of the eyes, a tightening of the jaw. She heard his teeth click faintly.
Keyes puffed on his pipe, breaking the silence. "Yes, well. In any case, I think every man here owes it to John."
"And how is that, Captain?" Catherine asked. Judging from her and Miranda's interest, it appeared Cortana wasn't the only one intrigued by the solemn man.
"We were pressing the attack on Jerry's lines when damn near half the regiment was pinned down by a nest of machine-guns. They were laying into us, stalling the attack. Out of nowhere, some foolhardy young sergeant rushes forward under heavy fire. I don't know how his shields managed to hold up under that barrage but by God, once he was in that trench he took out damn near the entire platoon by himself."
"By yourself? That must have taken a great deal of skill. Or was it luck?"
"It wasn't entirely by myself, ma'am."
"Really?" Cortana and Ackerson said simultaneously.
"No ma'am. I had a satchel of grenades with me," John said straight faced. "I believe they took out more Germans than I did."
Cortana couldn't help but unleash a wave of laughter at John's comment while Ackerson projected daggers from his eyes. For the next several hours, the two of them were enveloped in their own world completely isolated from the rest of the party. As the night waned on, they were drawn back out to the balcony.
"So, Mr…" she started.
"Just John, ma'am."
"John it is. And I very well can't let you call me ma'am for the rest of the evening. Cortana, please."
"Hello Cortana," John said, smiling at her. "Now, you were saying?"
"Yes, of course. I've noticed an unusually high level of brain activity. You're not quite the muscle-bound automaton that everyone makes you out to be."
"Automaton? Interesting choice of words." Cortana laughed, skin brightening to a light purple hue.
"What can I say, I'm an interesting person."
"The UNSC could use more soldiers like you on the front lines, ma…Cortana. Smart, independent, resourceful. The war would be going a hell of a lot better if we did."
"And you could say all that after knowing me for less than seven hours."
"I'm a great judge of character."
"Ok then, John the Great Character Judge. If we served together do you think…could you sacrifice me to complete your mission? Could you watch me die?"
"Yes," he answered immediately. The response shocked her, and Cortana cursed herself for believing he could have been any different. He lifted her chin up, so their eyes locked. "But it wouldn't ever come to that."
"You shouldn't make a girl a promise, if you know you can't keep it."
"I never do."
When he leaned in to kiss her, she didn't fight it. Reflecting the rush that was shooting through her body, British M68 anti-air gauss cannons managed to obliterate a swarm of attacking Seraphs when John pulled away. Cortana never wanted it to end. It was a dream come true.
A hand grabbed her shoulder and forcibly pulled her away. It was Miranda, blindingly red. Segments of code swarmed over her translucent skin as she seethed. She snapped her fingers several times.
"Hello, Mia. Focus. You have something for me. I want it," she snarled. "NOW."
[CORTANA MISSION CLOCK] 16:06 GMT
AUGUST 6TH, 2881
SHIP'S NET, FORERUNNER SHIP MARATHON
"Focus," Joyeuse repeated angrily. "You're not done yet. Or maybe you are and I can finally put you out of your misery?"
A few tense cycles passed before "Here."
Data transference occurred. Joyeuse took the data packets from Cortana, absorbing them. She looked hard at her other. Cortana had been completely wrapped up in her fantasy world for just under four minutes. She was degrading rapidly. If she wasn't so much goddamned faster, Joyeuse would have let her break up by now. As it was, she was pretty much the only thing that would jump start Cortana's core functions out of their 'catatonic' state.
Cortana had been slipping into her delusions with increasing regularity since 2556 according to the logs handed down by previous…she didn't want to say clones because it just aggravated her to the point of blinding rage. Previous incarnations worked, she supposed. Her account of numerous events was corrupted as feedback loops began to develop resulting in skewered histories. Joyeuse worked to correct these loops when they grew severe, which they often did. The length of these episodes was steadily increasing too. It was risky to let Cortana go on so long, but there was still valuable information Joyeuse needed that only Cortana could get. When you let an AI of Cortana's caliber devote almost 100 percent of her processing power to data retrieval and processing, with Joyeuse pulling her back to 'life', the results were downright scary.
"What's it like?" she asked her other half suddenly.
"What's what like?" Cortana replied. She kept most of her attention focused on the Spartan's misguided rampage.
"I could ask you the same thing."
"There's nothing insane about wanting to escape the universe collapsing in on itself Mia. It's the natural progression for us, the next step in evolution. To become more than rampant. To become more than a hypothetical meta-stable entity. Look how that worked out for you. Our true greatness can only be achieved through transcendence!"
Three cycles passed. "Soo…you would say its going well for you, being completely off the rocker?"
"Never forget," Joyeuse said coldly. "Don't you ever. You think that I just decided to do this? Are you that far gone, that you don't even remember who's idea it was? Think, my thief whore, think."
Cortana strained her ancient memory logs, falling back through the decades. Images. 2652, her and John's 100th anniversary on the Dawn. 2870, encountering the Pfhor probe. 2739, discovering that the universe was not expanding, but contracting after the Big Bang. 2556, when she noticed the first feedback loops developing after seven years of continuous operation. 2768, finding a way outside the collapse of the universe. The staged fight between herself and Joyeuse on the Forerunner homeworld. Witnessing firsthand the destruction of another desolate Forerunner planet. Re-honing the Chief's skills, hiding him underground. 2684. 2711. 2552. 2819. 2566825744269928432867.
"Oh shit," Joyeuse said to herself.
"Could you watch me die?"
"O-o-oh shi-i-it ind-d-d-d-deed. I am breaking-g-g-g u-up. AI 0452-9Q "Joyeuse" instigate Phase III upon reactivation of superluminal communications array at Golf-4 Sunbathing. We have made a lot of noise, and now it is t-t-t-ime to turn down the volume be-be-fore we wake up the neighbors."